Two Interlocking perspectives may be gleaned from the Chinese vessel-ramming of a Filipino boat F/B Gem-Ver that left 22 Filipino fishers abandoned in the waters off Recto Rank on June 9.
The first one links the incident with our external relations and President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China. It frames the maritime incident from the prism of the issue of sovereignty in disputed areas, thus reflecting the larger diplomatic conflict between the Philippines and China and Duterte’s decision to shelve the arbitration award against China’s dash-lined-claims in the South China Sea.
A politically charged lens, the external relations perspective connects the incident to China’s aggressive pursuit of its core interests through the occupation of Philippine-claimed islands in the West Philippine Sea, thereby securitizing or designating the maritime incident as a national security concern. China’s gray zone operations, which involve the deployment of maritime militia in civilian fishing operations in distant waters, has inevitably transformed the maritime incident into a case of state-sponsored violation of international maritime and humanitarian laws.
At this level, the focus is on the Philippines’ maritime entitlements located on an archipelagic state’s sovereign rights in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This lens zeroes in on certain diplomatic solutions for advancing a small state’s claims vis-à-vis those of the Great Power’s. For the Philippines, these include Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s proposed “no-war” strategies based on a unilateral filing of an extended continental shelf claim with the UN, participation in naval and aerial patrols in the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) of the US and allies, an ASEAN mini-lateral convention in support of the arbitral ruling, and expanded patrols in the EEZ.
The external relations perspective, however, is not mutually exclusive from what has also emerged as a domestic level of analysis, in which the focus on weak enforcement of Philippine fisheries management policies underpins the maritime incident. This lens presents the larger issue of foreign intrusion in our waters, a historical problem attributed to the state’s prioritization for commercial fishing and weak local government support for municipal fisheries.
Specific issues on fisheries management appear at the frontline of this perspective: At the national level, it reflects how decades of internal security and insurgency-thrusted national security relegated our maritime and marine sectors to a subordinate position. Maritime terrorism and the threat of transnational crimes at sea have also subdivided the limited resource allocation we have for the West Philippine Sea and for the protection of the Sulu Sulawesi waters.
A local level of analysis of the maritime incident also finds a connection with the continuing problem of illegal commercial fishing. The ramming incident has highlighted the prevalence of foreign commercial encroachment in municipal waters (within 15 km from the state’s coastline), and in the West Philippine Seas from 2012 to 2019. RA 10654 or the Amended Fisheries Code vests preferential use rights in municipal waters to the municipal fisherfolk. But, lacking in local government support, this sector has depended on limited resources to fish beyond municipal waters. This problem is further traced back to the lack of tools at the local government (LGU) level to implement the amended fisheries law and to the LGU’s weak compliance with the law. A case in point is the low implementation of the required installation of the vessel monitoring mechanism (VMM) for all fishing vessels — municipal or commercial, foreign or Philippine flagged, as a means of regulating illegal, unmonitored, and unreported fishing (IUU) by Filipino or foreign commercial fishing operations.
Accordingly, the Filipino boat, Gem-Ver, which lacked an updated certificate of clearance with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), was without a monitoring mechanism which could have been used to track abandoned fishers.
Beyond diplomacy, the domestic level of analysis requires a view to establish the continuities between our foreign and our national and local policies in the maritime sector. After the vessel ramming incident, the BFAR and international advocacy NGO, OCEANA, took one of the earlier leads to summon the LGUs to step up in their enforcement of sea patrol operations, support for municipal fishing, establishment of fishery management areas, purchase and deployment of fast crafts, and delineation of municipal waters. Indeed, the protection of municipal waters should complement national initiatives at enhanced and modernising patrol and defense of the EEZ. It would be inconceivable to defend our deep waters while our municipal waters, which is the municipal fisherfolk’s livelihoods security, remain porous to commercial and IUU fishing.
This perspective challenges us to shift the view towards a collective responsibility for protecting our oceans where the Philippines exercises jurisdiction.
Alma Maria O. Salvador, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Ateneo De Manila University.