CATO, Philippines, July 9 (Reuters) – Filipino fisherman Randy Megu has often braved the storms that hit the South China Sea, but these days he’s even more scared: to see a Chinese police vessel in the horizon.
Five years after landmark international arbitration tribunal ruling rejects China’s claims to Megu fishing waters, 48-year-old complains his encounters with Chinese boats are more frequent than ever .
“I was so scared,” Megu said, describing how a Chinese ship followed its wooden outrigger boat for three hours some 140 nautical miles (260 km) from the coast in May.
He said other fishermen said they were hit or bombarded with water cannons while working in what they considered to be their historic fishing grounds – which they hoped to secure after The Hague ruling in 2016 .
China rejected the decision and maintained its claim over most of the waters inside a so-called Nine Dash Line, which is also being challenged by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a single incident in March, the Philippines complained of incursions by more than 200 Chinese militia ships into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which stretches 200 nautical miles from its coast.
Chinese diplomats said the boats were safe from rough seas and no militia were on board.
“The data here is very clear,” said Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Chinese Coast Guard ships and militias are in the Philippines EEZ more than they were five years ago. “
A July 2020 opinion poll showed that 70% of Filipinos want the government to assert its claim on the South China Sea.
“We strongly reject attempts to undermine or even erase it from law, history and our collective memories,” Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said in a statement last month.
The country has made 128 diplomatic protests against China’s activities in disputed waters since 2016, and the Coast Guard and the Fishing Vessels Bureau have conducted “sovereign” patrols in the Philippine EEZ.
But the Philippines has done little else to assert its claim to burning President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made the relationship with China a foreign policy plan and said it was “unnecessary. To try to challenge his much taller neighbor.
After some members of his cabinet stepped up their rhetoric about the waters earlier this year, Duterte banned them from speaking.
“China is more in control. The only thing the Duterte government can point out is that it hasn’t had a major incident, ”Poling said. “If you keep going to the bully, of course there won’t be a fight. “
The Philippine Coast Guard and the Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
China’s presence has also grown elsewhere in the South China Sea. He continued to reinforce man-made islands equipped with secure ports, airstrips and surface-to-air missiles.
Clashes with Vietnam have set back energy projects. Malaysia complained about the actions of Chinese ships. Their presence has also raised concerns in Indonesia – even though it is not technically a requesting state.
The US Navy’s occasional freedom of navigation operations have challenged China’s claims, but show no sign of discouraging Beijing from deploying ships around the Philippines or elsewhere.
Prior to his election in 2016, Duterte said he would defend his country’s claims in the South China Sea.
He is due to step down at the end of his only six-year term next year, but rumors he could be vice-president or be replaced by his daughter have raised doubts that policies will change.
Pangasinan fishermen see little hope of a challenge to the Chinese vessels that now dictate their movements.
“Now it’s like we’re flying in our own backyard,” said Christopher de Vera, a 51-year-old fisherman.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Gerry Doyle
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