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Fishing for trouble in South China Sea

Fisherman Chen Yibin, 48, alleges that Philippine troops boarded the boat his cousin was on and opened fire, killing the 20-year-old and other crew members when they were fishing in the Spratlys in 2007. (ST PHOTO: KOR KIAN BENG)

Publication Date : 31-08-2012

 

He was the veteran fisherman tasked with guiding his young cousin during a 2007 fishing expedition in the waters near the Spratly Islands.

But Chen Yibin, 48, ended up having to pack his 20-year-old relative's body into a freezer that was meant to store fish, as he made a three-day dash back to their hometown here.

To this day, Chen believes his cousin was killed by Filipino soldiers who boarded the Chinese fishermen's boat, charging that it had strayed into Philippine waters and then firing at them.

Citing survivors' accounts, Chen, who was on another boat when the shooting took place, claims several other crew members were killed or injured. His account cannot be independently verified.

"I hate the Philippines for what it did. How could it be so cruel?" says Chen, holding up a clenched fist.

"If China goes to war against the Philippines, I will be the first to sign up to fight them."

Here in Tanmen, a fishing village of 32,000 tucked in the eastern corner of Hainan island, there is little diplomacy when it comes to tension in the South China Sea, believed to contain huge energy reserves.

Nearly half the residents of the village are fishermen who regularly trawl near the waters claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. For them, the dispute is brutal, bloody and sometimes deadly.

Yet, the Chinese government gives subsidies to fishermen who work the disputed waters, such as in the Spratlys, in an otherwise loss-making venture.

Fishermen say they get annual fuel subsidies based on the horsepower of their boats.

For instance, Chen received about 400,000 yuan (US$63,000) in such subsidies last year for his 750-horsepower boat, while Pu Mingkuang got about 300,000 yuan for his 600-horsepower boat.

They say they get an additional subsidy of about 5,000 yuan each time they make a fishing trip to the Spratlys.

Government officials have visited Tanmen village and urged them to continue fishing in the Spratlys so as to protect China's sovereignty claims against others, says Chen.

He adds: "I agree we have to do that, even without the subsidies. It's like you have a piece of land and if you never bother to tend to it, others will sneak in and claim it as theirs."

Maritime security expert Zhang Hongzhou of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies observed in a recent paper that China is encouraging its fishermen to venture to faraway waters such as those around the Spratlys because of depleting fishery resources in its inshore waters.

"These operations become triggers for maritime tensions and clashes in the region," he wrote.

Agreeing, analyst Ian Storey from Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies believes the monetary incentives could increase tensions.

"As we have seen in the recent past, it will lead to arrests and detentions, ramming of boats and even to exchanges of gunfire," he says. "To my mind, it's just a question of time before one of these incidents turns really ugly and people get killed."

As it is, most of Tanmen's fishermen can tell stories of run-ins with foreign navies, from being chased away to having warning gunshots fired into the air.

Some say foreign naval troops boarded their boats and looted their belongings. "What can you do but to let them take what they want? They have guns," says boat captain Tang Haoxin, 50.

Others say they have been thrown into foreign jails. Pu, 60, says he was detained for six months in eastern Malaysia in 1989, after he was arrested for entering Malaysian waters during a fishing trip near the Spratlys.

Fishermen from other countries in the region have complained of similar harassment by the Chinese authorities. In April, China released 21 Vietnamese fishermen and their two boats after having detained them for over a month for fishing illegally in the disputed Paracels. In May, it released 14 Vietnamese fishermen after having held them for five days, but kept their boat.

Still, the Chinese fishermen's experiences explain why they support their government's assertive posture against the other claimants.

Says boat captain Lu Jiabang, 50: "Now that our country is strong again, we should not give in to others any more. Why should we be bullied in our own territory?"

In particular, locals applaud the establishment of Sansha city in the Paracels last month to administer some 2 million sq km of the waters surrounding the area, the Spratlys and the Macclesfield Bank - all localities where there are overlapping claims.

After all, 60 per cent of the 1,000-plus Sansha residents were relocated from Tanmen.

One of them, He Shixuan, 57, moved to Sansha after a run-in with the Philippines' naval troops near Scarborough Shoal in April.

"They boarded our boats, held us at gunpoint and forced us to sign confession statements that we were in Philippine waters," he recounts. "But we refused, pointed to the Chinese flag on our boat and yelled 'this is China's territory!' at them."

The rising nationalism has fuelled the Tanmen fishermen's resolve to press towards the troubled waters.

They are egged on by He Jianbin, who heads the state-run Baosha Fishing Corporation based on Hainan Island. He has urged the Chinese government to turn fishermen into fighters.

"If we put 5,000 Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea, there will be 100,000 fishermen," he said in the nationalistic Global Times in June. "And if we make all of them militiamen, give them weapons, we will have a military force stronger than all the combined forces of all the countries in the South China Sea."

Such militant domestic pressure, which is seen in the Philippines and Vietnam too, could prevent these governments from taking any stance that could be seen as backing down from a conflict or giving in, cautions Dr Storey.

But for the fishermen of Tanmen, the war cry is in tune with their own desires.

Says fisherman Li Linbo, 60: "For centuries, our ancestors fished in the South China Sea. It is our zu zong hai ("ancestral waters" in Mandarin). If we don't safeguard it, who will?"

 

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