Thursday, August 31, 2023

In the dispute over the South China Sea, the Philippines takes on Beijing head-on

On the island of Palawan in the Philippines, a fisherman named Benjo Atay says, "We're scared of China" as the wind and rain smash his small bamboo boat. "We're scared of China."

He yells orders at his youthful crew, the majority of whom are members of his own family, while they pull on ropes in order to leave the harbor. They are already covered in sea water and sweat, but it is not the climate that causes them concern. They are afraid of something else.

He claims that Chinese ships are following closely behind us and circling us. "When we are anchored, they will force us to leave," the captain said. They intended to eliminate us as a threat.

A territorial dispute between the Philippines and China's capital city of Beijing is becoming increasingly contentious in the South China Sea.

It is one of several nations that has lodged a complaint against a map that was released by China this week. On the map, China reaffirmed its sovereignty over more than 90 percent of the ocean.

Manila's voice, which in the past might have been described as a gentle whimpering, has suddenly soared to a scream, empowered by support from Washington and its friends. In the past, Manila may have gently whined at China's moves to obstruct its ships.

"We are worried, but that does not daunt us," said Jonathan E. Malaya, the assistant director general of the Philippines National Security Council. "We are worried about rising tensions, but that does not daunt us."

In recent months, the Philippines has provided the US access to important military sites, hosted the largest-ever joint military drills between the two countries, and consistently called out Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea. In addition, the Philippines has hosted the largest-ever joint military drills between the two nations. In spite of the fact that Philippine and Chinese coastguards are playing a cat-and-mouse game on the contested waters, the Philippine government has revealed plans to educate fishermen to protect their area out at sea.

The meaning is unmistakable. "If you are a Filipino, whether in government or [the] private sector, regardless of your politics, defending and making excuses for China's aggressive behavior should deem you unpatriotic, and a traitor to the Philippines and to our people," Jay Tarriela, a spokesperson for the coastguard in the West Philippine Sea, wrote on social media. Tarriela is responsible for communicating with the public regarding the situation in the West Philippine Sea.

Not only do China's claims compete with those of the Philippines, but also those of Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. China's claims cover the entirety of the South China Sea. These are not brand new, but their volume and complexity are both increasing.

The most recent episode focuses on the inaccessible Ayungin shoal, which is located more than 620 miles (998 kilometers) away from the southernmost shore of mainland China and approximately 190 kilometers away from Palawan island.

Over the course of the past half year, Chinese vessels have employed water cannons and lasers to prevent the Philippine coastguard from reaching too close to the shoal. The boats were transporting water and food supplies that were absolutely necessary to the soldiers who were stationed on a decaying warship called the Sierra Madre, which Manila had purposefully wrecked on a shoal within their territorial waters. To try to maintain a presence on the shoal required a maneuver that was both resolute and premeditated.

In 2016, the Philippines prevailed against China in an international court and were awarded this land as a result of the ruling that Beijing's expansive claim to sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea lacked a legal basis.

Access to the shoal also implies access to the nearby Reed Bank, which has considerable quantities of oil and natural gas. These are rich fishing grounds, and access to the shoal also means access to the Reed Bank.

The Philippines, seemingly unfazed by the power that China possesses, made another attempt to convey supplies to its troops stationed in the Sierra Madre; this time, they claimed that their mission was successful.

Mr. Malaya characterized the situation as "a true David versus Goliath issue." "But just like David, we will continue to pound and double down on the need to protect the resources which are important for the future of the Philippines," the speaker said.

The idyllic islands caught in the crosshairs of the United States and China The cat-and-mouse game with China in the highly contested sea
However, Beijing does not perceive it in such a light. It asserts that the Sierra Madre is acting in a manner inconsistent with its sovereignty. The use of a water cannon by the Chinese coastguard on the vessel belonging to the Filipinos was described as "professional and restrained" in a statement released by the Chinese coastguard.

Manila claimed that it attempted to use a hotline it had established with China to alleviate the situation, but China did not answer the phone.

Mr. Malaya stated, "We would like to resolve this issue," but he confessed that "progress is slow and there is, at the present time, no meeting of the minds."

President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos has moved closer to Washington in comparison to his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who aimed to cultivate relations with China rather than criticize the country's policies.

Additionally, he has made public each dispute with Beijing on the South China Sea. If the Philippine coastguard has difficulty resupplying the ship that is grounded on Ayungin shoal, the situation will be broadcast on television. Importantly, the United States are not overly distant.

A statement made earlier this week by the commander of the United States Navy's Seventh Fleet stated that China's "aggressive behavior" in the South China Sea has to be addressed and checked.

In light of "shared challenges" in the region, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas gave the assurance that the United States will support Manila. "My forces are out here for a reason," he told the news agency Reuters. You have to confront those individuals who are, in my opinion, functioning in a gray area. You have to push back, you have to sail and operate when they keep taking a little bit more and more from you and pushing you.

In response, Beijing stated that the United States was "projecting power" by spreading strife through lies and distortions of the truth.

Some nations in this region are still unsure of whether or not they can trust the United States' message of support because Washington's previous statements regarding Beijing's activities in the South China Sea were vague. A change in management may not be the only thing that brings about an attitude shift.

However, for the time being, the United States is showing that it will be there for its partners in Asia. In addition, the United States is not the only country that has been observed in the South China Sea.

The United States of America, Japan, and Australia participated in joint drills with the Philippines last week. The exercises were termed as a "significant moment of defense" by Tokyo's ambassador to Manila. The largest-ever military exercises ever performed between the Philippines and Australia included a simulated beach landing as well as air assault manoeuvres near the South China Sea. These exercises were also participated in by the armed forces of Australia and the Philippines.

There is no other place on Earth where so many nations come so close to a competing force, which gives rise to concerns that a miscalculation will occur during these conflicts at sea.

The city of Manila runs the risk of the conflict becoming even more serious if it accepts assistance from its allies. On the other hand, that is a risk that the fisherman of Palawan might not be ready to take.

Romeo Brawner, the Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army, recently stated that they intend to enlist fishermen as reservists and provide them with training. Larry Hugo, the regional officer for the Kalayaan Palawan Farmers and Fisherfolks Association, laughed when the BBC asked him if he knew many fisherman who were prepared to join such a militia. Larry Hugo was responding to the question.

"No, no, we don't want to join," he responded. "No, no." "It is very unlikely that China will discover us. Fishermen from this area will be the target of this operation. The Chinese government is taking a more belligerent stance. They've also seen an increase in population."

According to Mr. Malaya, who works for the National Security Council of the Philippines, the Chinese are also operating hundreds of fishing vessels near the Ayungin shoal, which are, in essence, militia vessels.

"They are Chinese power instruments, and they are a component of the Chinese military's overall infrastructure. They have the purpose of intimidating and harassing our fishermen who work in the area, he went on to say.

Beijing, on the other hand, refutes the existence of such a force.

Benjo Atay claims that he is not prepared to even take the danger of sailing in those waters, let alone engage in combat there, regardless of whether it occurs or not.

Since he was 14 years old, he has been fishing close to Ayungin shoal. It was given its name after a species of fish native to the Philippines that is on the verge of extinction and is well-known among low-income families.

There was a time when he and other fishermen from the dispersed islands adjacent to Palawan were forced to sail in close proximity to Chinese boats in the same waters for an extended period of time.

Mr. Atay is now in his 30s, and at this point in his life, his worry for the safety of the crew exceeds the allure of a huge catch.

"I don't believe that we will revisit that location. We are in a state of extreme dread. It's possible that they'll fire their water cannon. Naturally, all we have is a boat made out of wood. Going back to that place gives us a great deal of anxiety.

The turquoise waters and white sands of Palawan's beaches are a picture-perfect combination. However, if you do not fish in this area, you will not be able to get something to eat.

The inhabitants of this island have been carving out villages from the rocky bays and sandy coasts for many centuries. These communities consist of single-room cottages with corrugated iron roofs and hammocks strung across the kitchen for infants to sleep in.

As a result of the storm, most of the boats are unable to move, therefore some people are forced to wade into the shallows while carrying nets and buckets in order to harvest shellfish. Others are making use of the time by fixing up their boats and their nets.

The children enjoy a day off from school to compete against one another on a makeshift basketball court that is surrounded by boats that have been turned over and are resting. When asked if they want to be fishers, the response is a loud yes, despite the fact that several of them have stated that they want to be professional basketball players instead.

Mr. Atay claims that it becomes more challenging with each passing year. "How could we possibly perform our jobs well while we're afraid? We are unable to concentrate on fishing, so we simply remain on the island, which is the only place where Filipinos are permitted.

During the time that these territorial conflicts are ongoing, these groups remain resolute in keeping a low profile. But their future could be determined by any of these outcomes.

Once upon a time, that future was determined by the wind and the tide. At this point, everything will depend on the determination of the leaders of the world.

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