POSTSCRIPT / May 24, 2022 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Will BBM bar illegal Chinese fishermen?

Among the tests awaiting apparent president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is how he would protect national interests, including that of Filipino fishermen, against the continued intrusion of Chinese poachers in the rich marine waters of the archipelago.

How would BBM handle Chinese fishermen illegally casting their big nets in rich Philippine fishing grounds? Photo: PHILSTAR/ Neajoy Razol

The anomaly has gotten to that point where Filipinos are no longer sure if the imported fish they buy at a high price in the public markets were not illegally caught in Philippine waters and sold back to us by poachers.

In explaining the government’s difficulty in securing territorial seas, the authorities point to the staggering size of our marine area, the lack of modern surveillance equipment, and fast patrol craft equipped with tracking devices and firepower sufficient to deter intruders.

The Financial Times reported Saturday that the Quad (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) would launch soon a maritime initiative to help curb illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific. This could include Chinese poaching in Philippine waters.

The FT said that the maritime initiative will use satellite technology to create a tracking system for illegal fishing from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific by connecting surveillance centers in Singapore and India.

US President Biden arrived Sunday in Japan, after a visit to South Korea. Yesterday, he joined Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a meeting with their counterparts from Australia and India to affirm their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The day’s activities included the launch of an Indo-Pacific economic framework, which the White House calls a “21st-Century Economic Arrangement” for improving collaboration on issues ranging from supply chains and standards for a digital economy to infrastructure.

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If the surveillance project to be launched by the four democracies starts operating and its data is made available to the Philippines, will a President Marcos use it to combat illegal fishing that has been stunting the growth of the country’s marine fisheries?

Many times Philippine authorities end up pretending not to see the intruders and poachers until foreign entities with more sophisticated surveillance equipment, linked to satellites, alert them.

We have learned too late on many occasions that alien survey ships claiming to be on innocent passage stop, linger or make suspicious turns until they are spotted and advised to leave. Also, Chinese militia boats swarm in a menacing manner around islets claimed or inhabited by Filipinos.

We hope the Department of Foreign Affairs does not run out of paper and ink printing the protest notes sent to Beijing about the unfriendly presence of those boats identified with the People’s Liberation Army.

Filipino fishermen have complained about being driven away by the Chinese coast guard and Chinese bully fishermen on bigger boats from their traditional grounds such as Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales.

One environmental group, the Homonhon Environmental Rescue Organization (HERO), has estimated that more than 260 tons of fish are illegally taken daily by the Chinese around the Union Banks and Pag-asa Islands using boats that are at least 60 meters in length.

President Duterte has interceded for Filipino fishermen at Panatag with President Xi Jinping, but despite the latter’s reported assurances, China appears bent on tightening its hold on the strategic shoal just 272 air kilometers from Subic Bay.

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How would Marcos handle just this one problem about Chinese fishermen illegally casting their big nets in rich Philippine fishing grounds?

Marcos reportedly said days ago that the country’s ties with China will expand and “shift to a higher gear” when he takes over, presumably along the pro-Beijing direction charted by President Duterte.

Two days after the May 9 elections showed Marcos with a clear lead, President Xi called and assured him of support for his “independent foreign policy”, and reportedly agreed to hold more comprehensive discussions in the future.

Marcos said in a statement: “The way forward is to expand our relationship not only diplomatic, not only trade, but also in culture, even in education, even in knowledge, even in health, to address whatever minor disagreements that we have right now.”

“We are both looking forward to having further dialogue,” he added. “He (Xi) said both of us should talk, without the others.”

Back to the head of this column asking “Will BBM bar illegal Chinese fishermen?” Our guess is that he will not.

What he would likely do, we think, is he would enter into a bilateral arrangement with China for joint fishing and other economic activities. Then there won’t be poaching. They would have become legit.

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We note, meanwhile, that somebody is rushing before the Duterte administration bows out an order for six offshore patrol vessels for P30 billion from South Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries “to boost our capability to protect national interests.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters Friday: “I’m waiting for the Navy to finalize the terms of reference. We are close to issuing (the notice of award). I hope I can sign the contract before I leave office. The Navy has chosen Hyundai Heavy Industries to build the OPVs.”

Hyundai’s offer is based on the HDP-1500 Neo design presented at the Asia Defense and Security 2022 exhibition held in Manila last month. With an overall length of 81 meters, a displacement of 1,700 tons, and a maximum speed of 21 knots, the new patrol ships are expected to be armed with 76mm naval guns and autocannons in remote-controlled weapon stations.

The brochures said they will have provisions for anti-ship missile launchers, torpedo launchers, and a short-range air defense system. The navy’s fleet had World War II-vintage vessels that were decommissioned starting in 2020.

By the time the first batch of OPVs arrives four years after the signing of the contract, there won’t be any Chinese illegally fishing in Philippine waters because they would have been legitimized.

(Update of the original copy first published in the Philippine STAR of May 24, 2022)

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