Technically, the place is merely a collection of rocks and reefs. But its numerous names mirror the tension that has engulfed its waters. China believes it is Huangyan Dao based on their historical claims. Filipino fishermen from Zambales refer to it as Kalburo or Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal — a safe haven against storms.
But for the rest of the world, it is Scarborough Shoal, the focus of a territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
Last July 12, 2016, the United Nations Arbitration Tribunal denied the legal basis of China’s historic claiming rights in the area. The ruling also declared that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines by interfering with Filipino fishermen, failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from entering the area and constructing artificial islands. For a more detailed explanation of the ruling, refer to this article.
Fast forward to September 3, 2016. While President Rodrigo Duterte was in Laos to attend the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Summits, the Department of National Defense released the following images showing the increasing number of Chinese vessels at Scarborough Shoal.
A few days ago during a Davao del Norte speech, President Duterte said that he received intelligence reports that China has barges in the disputed territory, an indication that they are starting to build military installations which may possibly affect the maritime trade in the area.
The ship in this image is still fresh in my mind. I personally encountered three of these vessels when I visited Scarborough Shoal back in July.
The Voyage to Kalburo
A few days after the tribunal decision in July, I visited fishermen of Masinloc, Zambales whose fishing rights at Bajo de Masinloc had been impeded by China. The UN ruling offered a glimmer of hope as they thought it to mean they can catch fish again without any intimidation from China.
Scarborough Shoal, or Kalburo for locals, is 125 nautical miles from the coast of Masinloc, Zambales. We rode a light boat — a nimble vessel used for scouting the West Philippine Sea for fishing areas. I was with the news teams of TV5 reporter Dindo Flora and Channel News Asia correspondent Aya Lowe. By 12am, we set sail with the fishermen.
A one-way trip usually lasts ten to twelve hours. So we had spare time for our souvenir pictures.
Scarborough Shoal is an important fishing location for Filipinos, with an estimated yearly catch of aquatic resources amounting to 500 metric tons. A few days before that, I joined a fishing expedition to Bolinao, Pangasinan, which had been the alternative fishing ground since China started bombing water cannons and honking at Filipino fishermen. That day, they caught three tons of fish. That catch was good. But according to the fisherfolk, one trip to Scarborough Shoal would usually net them around twelve to fifteen tons.
We were hoping we could get a good catch at Scarborough Shoal. The weather was favorable and our captain knew the route well. By 11 am, we were almost near the perimeter of the disputed territory. The hype of its sea treasures was real. A pod of friendly dolphins gave us a warm welcome.
An expedition to Panatag Shoal is expensive. Boat owners typically shell out around P50,000 to P60,000 for fuel. If the fishermen get a good catch, they can usually recover their capital and profit well. But in recent years, many of them have suffered significant losses in livelihood because of China’s efforts to interfere and block fishermen from entering the shoal.
And as it turned out, our voyage would suffer the same disruption.
By 12 noon, we were already at Scarborough Shoal — only 1.8 nautical miles away from entering its vicinity. Our captain was talking to other nearby fishermen over the radio. They were giving him visual cues about the situation at the shoal.
As expected, we weren’t alone. There were silhouettes of vessels in the horizon.
We were almost at the mouth of the shoal. But our captain decided to stop the engine. He said we should wait for the vessels to “shake hands” with us. And so we anxiously stood still in the middle of the West Philippine Sea.
Some of the journalists who joined the voyage were suggesting that we just go for it, since the shoal was within reach. But it turned out our captain’s caution was necessary. In a matter of minutes, a vessel of the Chinese Coast Guard became larger in the horizon.
We didn’t wait for the vessel as there was too much uncertainty. Several Filipino fishermen have experienced the water cannons of these Chinese Coast Guard ships during previous encounters. So our boat turned around to return to Masinloc.
But the Chinese weren’t done yet.
The ship deployed a speedboat with three soldiers. They were using a long range acoustic device to try to disrupt our hearing. It’s a device for the dispersal of pirates and even rallyists. As it blared, the Chinese blatantly directed us to leave and to go back.
After a few minutes, a second speedboat pursued us.
After a sudden burst, the speedboats were already upon us, one on each side. Though they kept bothering us with their noise, they didn’t harm us. They were just standing there, looking at us.
We had an earlier discussion with my fellow reporters that no act of aggression — even of the verbal variety — should come from our side. We understood that any untoward incident in this disputed territory can lead to an escalation beyond our control.
So we just documented everything with our cameras. And they were doing the same. The Chinese Coast Guard chased us for over an hour at an estimated distance of thirteen nautical miles.
By this time, we headed back to shore and the voyage lasted for ten more hours. With the help of sophisticated technology, our news team reported live for 24 Oras and State of the Nation with Jessica Soho while in the middle of the West Philippine Sea.
When our boat reached Masinloc, the captain said the behavior of the Chinese Coast Guard worsened. A few months before that, they said they were still allowed to seek shelter in the shoal during bad weather. After the tribunal released their decision, this was no longer possible. By the assessment of the fishermen, the Chinese Coast Guard has become more aggressive in driving away Filipino vessels after the ruling.
As a result of the territorial dispute, the local government of Masinloc has advised its residents to avoid venturing into Scarborough Shoal to prevent encounters that may compromise their safety.
For their part, our fishermen have avoided going to Kalburo because of the uncertainty in the area. A majority of Masinloc fishermen has detoured to the fishing grounds near Stewart Bank and Bolinao, Pangasinan. But because most of them are here, the quality of their catch has suffered.
The next chapters of this territorial dispute are yet to be written. Scarborough Shoal may just be a collection of rocks and reefs but it can trigger a chain reaction that can affect millions of people. Our hope is for diplomacy to always prevail.
About the Author:
Bam Alegre is the founder of SubSelfie.com and writes from time to time as a guest contributor. He is a News Reporter for GMA News (2012) and a Special Lecturer for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the East (2015). He was also part of the team that won GMA News the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for the news coverage of super typhoon Yolanda (2013). Previously, he worked behind the scenes as a Segment Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho and 24 Oras (2009-2012). He is also the vocalist, pianist and guitarist of the band No Parking (2005). BA Broadcast Communication 2007, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.