South China Sea

Mr. Forones takes on China

For years, Beijing has been controlling islands, reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. And one Philippine fisherman has started fighting back

Carsten Stormer
June 19, 2019
Mr. Forones takes on China
Tolomeo Forones is one Philippine fisherman fed up with China's growing maritime presence. Photo: Carlo Gabuco

Two days before his friends ask the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate the Chinese president, Tolomeo Forones glides a wooden trawler out of the port of the fishing town Masinloc into the South China Sea. His destination: the Scarborough Shoal, a largely sunken atoll called Panatag by the Philippines, and Huangyan Dao by the Chinese. Forones only calls it “my reef”.

Forones, 65, a scrawny man, his white hair combed straight up, his teeth brown from tobacco, fished at Scarborough Shoal for 20 years – like generations of Filipino fishermen before him. But now every voyage is a risk: China claims the reef for itself. The People’s Republic wants to extend its supremacy in the region, and men like Forones get in the way.

The trawler sails 14 hours westward, 120 nautical miles at a constant eight knots, until the first patrol ships of the Chinese coast guard emerge in the light of the rising sun. “There is the entrance to the lagoon. But inside the reef they won’t let us fish anymore,” says Forones, pointing to a shallow in the sea. He counts nine Chinese ships that have positioned themselves around the Shoal.

His captain Sergio Malinaw throttles the engine at half speed and does not let the patrol boats of the Chinese coast guard out of sight. He has been sailing for more than three decades. Wind and sun have tanned his skin dark brown. Malinaw doesn’t really want any trouble with the Chinese. “We wish it would be as peaceful as it used to be when we weren’t afraid of fishing at the Scarborough Shoal.”

In April 2012, a major incident occurred with a Philippine patrol boat had a standoff with eight Chinese fishing vessels fishing in Philippine waters. Since then, China has gained control of the reef. Forones and his people now have to fear being sent back to shore every time they sail.

Captain Malinaw drops anchor. He grabs a knife, ties a rope around his foot with a plastic tub attached to its end, jumps into the water and swims to the pointed rock formations of the atoll, which jut out of the water even at high tide. The rest of the morning he collects sea snails and mussels.

For fishermen like Forones and Malinaw, the Scarborough Shoal is home, income, food. Fishing the reef feeds their families and enables their children to go to school.

For the government in Beijing it is about money and power. China controls about 80 percent of the approximately 3.7 million square kilometers of sea bordered in the north by China, in the west by Indonesia and Malaysia, and in the east by Taiwan and the Philippines. So far, the US has asserted its influence in the region, insisting on “freedom of navigation” in the area, which is threatened by Beijing’s aggressive behaviour. The People’s Republic piles artificial islands here, builds runways for its air force and installs anti-aircraft guns.

The Scarborough Shoal are the site of growing tension between the Chinese coast guard and local fishermen. Photo: Erik De Castro / REUTERS
The Scarborough Shoal are the site of growing tension between the Chinese coast guard and local fishermen. Photo: Erik De Castro / REUTERS

The South China Sea is of economic and geopolitical importance: about twelve percent of the world’s fishing comes from the sea. It has untapped gas and oil reserves. Goods worth about 3.4 trillion dollars, a third of world trade, pass through the sea every year.

China sees the control of the reef as a decisive move in the fight for influence in the region: the atoll forms a triangle with the Paracel Islands and the Philippine Spratlys claimed by Vietnam. By taking over the Scarborough Shoal, China would control the link between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It could thus ensure a safe passage for its frigates, destroyers and submarines, which can be equipped with nuclear missiles, from the base of the South Sea Fleet on Hainan Island to the West Pacific.

While the crew is fishing and Malinaw is pulling sea snails from rocks, Forones rests on deck and tells of the dramatic events of April 2012, when Chinese ships blocked the entrance to the lagoon on the reef and forced the Philippine ships to turn back.

“The Chinese came aboard, confiscated our catch and claimed that the reef now belonged to them. What should we have done? They were armed and drove us away with water cannons,” he says and lights a cigarette.

In 2013, the Philippine government called the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which is responsible for disputes between member countries – the David from the impoverished island in the south versus the rich and powerful Goliath from the north. Forones was one of the fishermen who made a sworn declaration at the time.

Three years later, the judges came to a decision: China had no “historical rights to the resources within the ‘Nine Dash Line’”. With this line Beijing has been justifying its claims in the South China Sea for years. According to the judges, the Scarborough Shoal lies within the 200-nautical-mile zone off the Philippine coast, which a country may use economically. The court’s ruling is binding as both China and the Philippines have ratified the Convention.

But the Chinese government does not recognise it. And Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who maintains good relations with Beijing, lets his neighbours do as they wish.

Forones and his colleagues feel helpless, left alone and at the mercy of Chinese politics. They say “Scarborough is ours!” Spearfisher Randy Prado, 45, slides a nylon line into the sea and shortly thereafter pulls a perch out of the water.

“We used to catch enough fish after two days and were able to go home,” he says. “Since we are no longer allowed to fish inside the reef, we need more than a week. What right do the Chinese have to treat us like this? This is Philippine territory. Not theirs!”

Captain Malinaw chats on radio with a buddy of the Philippine Coast Guard, jokes, scolds China and says at the end of the conversation: “If we don’t do what they order us to do, they’ll drive us away with their water cannons”.

In the afternoon, Forones and Malinaw sit with boiled sea snails and a bottle of rum in the shade of a plastic tarpaulin and talk about past times. The situation is so confusing that even Captain Malinaw is no longer sure in whose territorial waters he is anchoring.

“Doesn’t the reef belong to the Chinese now?” he asks.

“This place belongs to us,” says Forones. “We won on paper. But the Chinese coast guard is still here.”

“They’re supposed to back off,” Malinaw declares, pouring a sip of rum into a coffee cup and handing it to the old fisherman.

“They don’t care about the court’s decision. They just keep harassing Filipinos and taking what’s not theirs.”

Forones did not hesitate two years ago when a lawyer from Manila came to his hometown, Masinloc, to gather evidence of legal violations by China. He has since collected testimonies and photos of Filipino fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by China’s expansionist desire. The goal: an indictment before the International Criminal Court in The Hague against the Chinese President Xi Jinping for one of the “most massive destructions of the environment in human history”.

According to Forones, the lawyer gave him and other fishermen waterproof cameras to document their trips to the reef. After each tour, Forones collects the memory cards and hands them over to the woman on her next visit to Masinloc. “It gave me hope because someone is fighting for us. Nobody else does that. Even our president only bows in front of them,” says Forones.

The next morning Forones meets the crew of a trawler anchored a hundred metres away. The men greet him like an old acquaintance. A fisherman who presents himself as Choy reports that a few years ago the Chinese attacked his boat once with helicopters.

China Coast Guard vessels patrol past Philippine fishing boats at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Erik De Castro / REUTERS
China Coast Guard vessels patrol past Philippine fishing boats at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Erik De Castro / REUTERS

“Me and a buddy had been forgotten by our people at the reef. For half a day we sat on the rocks in the sun until the boat came back to get us,” he says. “The Chinese came aboard, confiscated our harpoons and stole the best fish from the containers. Even if we had resisted, we would not have had a chance.”

Choy weighs a box on deck and wipes the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his hand. No one has stolen his catch in the past two months, he says. “But we know that the Chinese can forbid us to fish here at any time. If they do, we are lost. Then we can’t even afford rice anymore.”

On the way back to Masinloc, the wind picks up; waves hit the hull from all sides and cause the fishing boat to dance wildly over the waves. Only at sunset does the sea calm down. After two and a half days on the open sea, the wooden trawler enters the harbour of Masinloc at two o’clock in the morning.

Here there is mobile phone reception again. When Forones turns on his phone, he receives an SMS from the lawyer in Manila. He holds the phone far away from himself to decipher the message. It says that the lawyer asked the International Criminal Court to investigate on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Filipino fishermen.

This will be the top news in the Philippine news for days. And on the Internet, tens of thousands of Filipinos will support the request with a petition.

In early May, the Supreme Court of the Philippines also ruled that the government must protect the marine areas and fishing grounds around three reefs in the South China Sea. One of them is the Scarborough Shoal.

On his way home, Forones drives past his colleague Joseph to pick up memory cards with pictures of his last trip. The two men sit down in the kitchen, drink coffee and scroll through the pictures. They show Chinese ships harvesting corals and giant clams. Joseph has zoomed in on the identification number of each ship, so you can trace back where it came from, he says.

Forones hits his buddy on the shoulders and says: “Did you hear? The Chinese president is soon to be charged.”

“No,” Joseph says, he knows nothing about it. “So, what now?”

Good question. Silence.

Without giving an answer, Forones drives home to his wife, kisses his grandchild on the forehead, pulls a Red Horse beer out of a freezer, takes two deep swigs, drops onto his bed and falls asleep.

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