By Daniel Long
The Associated Press reported yesterday (September 26, 2023) that the Philippine Coast Guard said it removed a 300-meter long barrier at the entrance to the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal. The A.P. added that the Coast Guard “did not provide other details, such as whether the entire barrier was removed, when the operation occurred and how Chinese coast guard ships, which have closely guarded the shoal for years, reacted.” The Philippine mainstream media and government officials were quick to paint China as the aggressor who is bullying our fishermen and that they had violated international law. Anti-Marcos zealot Justice Carpio said in an interview that no one country can regulate fishing in Scarborough Shoal. However, there is more to the story. To borrow a phrase from BBM, the situation is yet another “gray area”.
The media’s narrative that the livelihood of Filipino fishermen is being threatened is propaganda. The Armed Forces of the Philippines had already clarified on September 10, 2023 that Filipino fishermen are still able to fish in Scarborough Shoal. Colonel Medel Aguilar released a statement saying: “Our fishermen are still able to fish at the Scarborough Shoal assisted by PCG [Philippine Coast Guard].” Benar News reported in June 2023 that President Marcos said he was fine with fishing bans imposed by China as long as there is coordination with the Philippines. BBM said: “When there is a fishing ban, we coordinate with them [China] so we do not get surprised…So we can have some time to plan…Let us give them [fishermen] another livelihood or another source of income.” Justice Carpio attacked the President for his statement and said that the Philippine government “cannot recognize China’s fishing ban in any part of our EEZ.” The President is right. Carpio is wrong. I advise Justice Carpio that if he wants to challenge the country’s foreign policy, he should become President first. BBM alone as the President is the chief architect of foreign policy, not a retired Supreme Court justice.
In November 2016, various news outlets reported that President Duterte, with the support of Chinese President Xi Jinping, would issue an executive order declaring the lagoon inside Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary and off-limits to ALL fishermen (Filipino and Chinese). Manila Bulletin reported on September 23, 2023 that President Marcos advised Filipino fishermen in Camarines Sur to “avoid breeding areas”. Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal should also heed the President’s advice. It is in the mutual interest of the Philippines and China to protect areas like the lagoon in Scarborough where fish gather and breed to prevent overfishing and economic loss. According to Westly Rosario, chief of the National Integrated Fisheries Technology Development Center, Scarborough Shoal is a perfect “breeding ground” because it is a coral reef with the smaller fish residing in the lagoon.
The 2016 arbitral award (Paragraph 805) concluded that the Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing ground for Filipinos, Chinese, and other nationalities. While the Scarborough Shoal is within the 200 nautical miles limit (119nmi) of exclusive economic zone granted to the Philippines under UNCLOS
(United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea), the Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that NO ONE COUNTRY had sovereign rights (fishing rights and exploitation of natural resources) to the Scarborough Shoal. It is therefore inaccurate (if those people upholding the arbitral award are to be consistent) to claim Scarborough Shoal is truly part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Paragraph 809 of the award also stated that traditional fishing rights in the Scarborough Shoal “are NOT absolute or impervious to REGULATION.” It added that “careful regulation of traditional fishing may be NECESSARY…to restrict environmentally harmful practices” and “reasonable regulation” does not violate international law. Both the Philippine and Chinese governments have a duty to regulate traditional fishing rights in Scarborough Shoal since both countries would benefit from a healthy fishing environment. In this regard, the rights of fishermen must be subordinated to maritime common good. That’s not oppression.