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Making Waves: The Philippine Civilians Defying Chinese Ships

 

Last December, the People’s Republic of China sent three large ships to confront a force it deemed worthy of such a presence: a convoy of smaller vessels bearing civilians and gifts.

 

The showdown happened at the South China Sea, at a portion near Palawan deemed by international law as an area that belongs to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Nearby, there were outposts manned by Philippine marines and the convoy, organized by a Filipino civilian group called Atin Ito, sailed over there with the Philippine Coast Guard to lift their spirits in time for the holidays. Composed of around 200 volunteers that include artists, religious leaders and members of the Philippine press, they came with presents and a plan to hold a Christmas party for the troops. 

 

To Rafaela “Paeng” David, the president of the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party which is part of the coalition, this shouldn’t be a problem. “This [area] is ours,” she said in her language; therefore, Filipinos should have the right to access it just as much as they have the right to all of its resources. The Chinese government, however, feels differently.

 

For years, China has been using ancient maps to claim most of the South China Sea including areas within 200 nautical miles of the Philippines. They do so even as their supporting documents were invalidated by the international community because they go against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (which the country both ratified and signed.) While China has yet to expel all non-Chinese outposts in the large area they claim, they have harassed and intimidated the vessels of other countries they’ve encountered here. They’ve gone so far as to ram ships, assault them with high-pressure water cannons and actually injure seafarers. And, on that day in December, as their vessels came into view with their imposing frames and their water cannons, it looked as though they were planning to do the same thing to the civilian convoy.

 

“If we came with gifts, they came with cannons,” David said. “You could really tell that there was an intention to intimidate, to harass.”

 

To a certain extent, they succeeded. The captain of the ship David was on made the call to turn back to protect its passengers. But, while it looked as though their mission was a failure, David—who has been affectionately dubbed as Atin Ito’s “civilian commander”—later faced the public to share their partial success. Apparently, she instructed a smaller and faster vessel also bearing gifts to take a different route. This clandestine move allowed it to evade China’s forces and unload its deliverables to their proper destination.

 

This was the first maritime voyage of Atin Ito (which in English roughly translates to “this is ours.”) And, according to David, it won’t be the last.

 

At the office of Akbayan in Quezon City, Metro Manila, tucked in a quiet residential street surrounded by schools, David—the young woman who has become one of the faces of Atin Ito—spoke of their plans for the future. Apparently, they’ll be having another convoy on May 15. This time, they aim to show their support for fishers who are also getting bullied by China. They are the ones who are based in Zambales and they fish at Scarborough Shoal, a resource-rich formation of rocks and reefs which is also within the Philippine EEZ. The Chinese tend to guard this by barricading its entrance and chasing away non-Chinese nationals. In spite of their aggression, however, these Filipino fisherfolk go there to make ends meet. So, come May, as a show of solidarity, Atin Ito will visit them and give gifts.

 

“It will be a civilian resupply mission,” David said. They aim to reach the Filipinos fishing at the shoal to give them fuel for their boats, food and additional gear. This is also meant to be a peaceful protest; an assertion of rights to normalize civilian access to this area. At the heart of it, such an action is meant to make at least one claim: “atin ito.”

 

This is the Filipino way, according to David; “history has shown us that.”

 

KEEPING IT CIVIL

 

The Philippines is an archipelago often subjected to natural calamities and controversial if not outright contentious leadership. As a result, civil society often plays a crucial role in safeguarding the interests of the general public.

 

When the country was under the rule of Spain and Filipinos were being abused by colonizers who referred to them as “indios,” proactive citizens were the ones who organized secret groups that spearheaded a revolution. Meanwhile, during the long dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., civil society organizations challenged the tyrannical regime until their efforts formed a critical mass needed for the success of the 1986 EDSA People Power which effectively returned legitimate democracy to the Philippines. And then there were the initiatives during the Duterte administration; civilian-led efforts like community pantries were put up to aid the public struggling due to the government’s shortcomings in dealing with the economic ramifications of the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Throughout the country’s history, active citizens have been the key to pushing for change and on many instances, they succeeded.

 

“You don’t need to be part of the government to help,” David said. And Atin Ito is determined to prove this with the current sea row.

 

“We are a small country,” she said. “But we will not allow them to keep bullying us.”

 

The South China Sea has long been a source of friction between China and the Philippines but tensions escalated in 2012 after the Philippines tried to arrest Chinese poachers at Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese responded by protecting them using its navy. This then led to a tense standoff felt across the continent. Since this instance, China—which has a much more developed army and economy—has intensified its harassment of various Filipino frontliners in the area; this includes members of the Philippine Coast Guard and fisherfolk.

 

Among the most high profile instances was the Reed Bank incident of 2019. The Chinese vessel, Yuemaobinyu 42212 apparently rammed an anchored Philippine fishing vessel F/B Gem-Ver. This sank the latter and endangered the 22 lives on board. Reports state that the Filipino fishers were then abandoned by the Chinese. They survived, however, after two members of the Philippine party managed to paddle for about two hours and seek the help from TGTG-90983-TS, a nearby Vietnamese fishing vessel. This is one of the many cases highlighting the kinds of dangers Filipino fishers tend to face in the South China Sea.

 

“What they go through is no joke,” David said. And while she acknowledges that there may be Filipinos ambivalent to such incidents (since they don’t experience them personally,) she warned that the effects of such harassments might end up being felt throughout the Philippines eventually.

 

“This isn’t just an issue for fisherfolk or other frontliners,” she said. “This is an issue for all Filipinos.” And given what’s currently happening, a number of experts agree.

 

In an article by the Philippine Information Agency earlier this year, Tanggol Kalikasan, an environmentalist group highlighted the importance of the Philippine EEZ in the South China Sea.

 

“About 70 to 80 percent of the [Mackerel scad] supplied to Metro Manila comes from that area,” said Asis Perez, the senior adviser of the group. “It is also one of the migratory spots of tuna in the country.”

 

Perez, a former director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, also mentioned that the abundance of marine life in the controversial waters could significantly contribute to the income generation of fisherfolk in the Philippines. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority said that it has produced an average of 304,586 metric tons of fish from 2018 to 2022. Meanwhile, data shared by David said that 30 percent of corals of the Philippines are in here. 27 percent of commercial fish catch comes from this area as well. There are also estimates, she said, that about 7 percent of the total fish production of the Philippines is sourced from this part of the sea. In summary, China is basically barring access to vast amounts of marine wealth. To some, however, this is just part of the problem.

 

According to various sources, the Philippine EEZ within South China Sea has been subjected to substantial environmental damage because of Chinese activity. In 2020, Dr. Deo Onda, a scientist from the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute, said that reclamation projects of China has caused damages to the reef ecosystems in Panatag Shoal and the Spratlys Islands. He estimated that this is causing the Philippines to lose about 33.1 billion pesos annually. Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard, in 2023, said that the coral reefs in Rozul Reef and Escoda Shoal were destroyed because of Chinese maritime militia vessels. In “Deep Blue Scars: Environmental Threats to the South China Sea” which was created by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are claims that extensive ecological destruction has fallen upon the South China Sea because of the sand dredging and overfishing done by China. However, in an article by Newsweek, Ji Lingpeng, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines said that “such a report is neither factual nor verifiable.”

 

“Why are they so obsessed with harping on the same string?” he asked. To people like David, concern comes partly from what is actually seen.

 

“If you go to Zambales, you don’t even need to leave the shore,” she said. “Even from the shore, you can really see their ships dredging.”

 

Food security and environmental health only make up part of the issue, however. Apparently, even the energy sector of the Philippines may also be affected by Chinese harassment. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency and Council on Foreign Relations, the controversial waters are estimated to have about 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. The Philippines and China were in talks of joint explorations but the partnership has been stalled as their maritime forces clashed. And, as case after case of harassment pile up, private citizens have gotten motivated to take action.

 

Chief among them were three people: Akbayan’s Chairman Emeritus Ronald Llamas, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and the current President and Vice Chairperson of The Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM,) Father Edicio Dela Torre.

 

At first, the three were just lamenting the situation of Filipinos in the South China Sea; they resolved that something needed to be done but didn’t settle on anything. However, after Del Rosario passed away last year, Llamas and Dela Torre sought to honor his memory by mobilizing. Soon enough the groups they represented and other civilian organization gathered together and formed a coalition now testing the waters.

 

Formally launched in October 2023, Atin Ito is composed of different groups. These include Akbayan, its youth arm, PRRM, the Center for Agrarian Reform for Empowerment and Transformation, Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka, Team Manila Lifestyle and a number of local artists.

 

On its website, the group is defined as “a citizen-led campaign to honor our West Philippine Sea fisherfolk and frontliners” and it aims to do this by providing a platform for people who wish to help them. For example, the civilian missions. To pursue the first one, the group held a months-long donation drive which allowed civilians to send goods to the frontliners. This peaked at a concert on November 29, 2023 at the University of the Philippines Diliman where people also donated. The mission was conducted shortly after and now that it’s done, they’re using what they’ve learned from it to ensure the success of the next one.

 

“We have strategies in place,” David shared, “whatever scenarios we have.”

 

A key difference is the guest list. This time around, aside from just bringing members of the media to document, the group also intends to bring in foreign observers to give them a better view of the struggles faced by fisherfolk in waters occupied by China. This move was also done in an attempt to discourage aggression from the Asian giant, a country that may still value its international reputation. It will also give foreign parties a chance to show solidarity with the Philippines.

 

Furthermore, Atin Ito also updated its donations wish list to better aid its beneficiaries. They refuse monetary donations but they are open to acquiring goods categorized into three: food items (particularly rice and powdered drinks,) personal and protective gear, and fishing equipment.

 

Fuel will be one of the key donations according to David and the necessity of this is highlighted by how Zambales fisherfolk operate. When they fish at locations like Scarborough Shoal (which is around 239 kilometers away from their land,) fishers tend to stay there for days instead of going back and forth in order to save fuel. The resupply in the middle of fishing, David said, will help them feel more secure. Furthermore, it will remind them that there are Filipinos out there who are willing to stand by them and defend their rights even in difficult situations.

 

To David, this is an important message to send because there is a significant faction of the Philippine population that seems to be acting against them.

 

TESTING THE WATERS

 

Following the standoff at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the Philippines, under the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, sued China before an arbitral tribunal at the Hague and won. A key point of the ruling states that China’s historic claims to most of the South China Sea are invalid. This, however, did not stop Chinese incursion in the Philippine EEZ especially since its government found an ally in Aquino’s successor. This is especially clear to Commodore Jay Tarriela, a spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard.

 

“During the time of President [Rodrigo] Duterte,” he said, “we decided to have a much more closer relationship with the People’s Republic of China.” And this closeness was manifested in ways that don’t align with what Duterte promised.

 

When he campaigned to be a president of the Philippines, Duterte was a theatrical, flag-kissing populist who went so far as to say that he’ll defend Philippine territories by personally riding a jetski and planting a flag on the Spratly Islands. Come 2021, near the end of his term, he called that promise a joke and China managed to acquire a broader presence in the Philippine EEZ. He also deemed the Hague ruling useless since it cannot be enforced (even though his critics have outlined ways to enforce it.) Finally, he and his daughter, the current Vice President Sara Duterte, have been largely silent of China’s actions even though both are known for being vocal on issues of national security and patriotism. The younger Duterte spoke of the matter eventually but its highlight came in two words: “no comment.”

 

David called it traitorous. “It echoes the dangerous depths of her allegiance to China over the well-being and dignity of the Filipino people.”

 

Overall, the actions or lack thereof of Duterte and his daughter do not sit well with those vocal about the issue. Tarriela in particular noted that even after the former president cozied up to China, the state of frontliners in the South China Sea remain dismal.

 

“The Chinese Coast Guard continue to harass the Filipino fishermen,” he said. “The Armed Forces of the Philippines are still unable to complete their supply mission in Ayungin Shoal. And, the Philippine Coast Guard is still also having trouble maintaining our presence in our own exclusive economic zone.” This, he said, is why he believes that there might be merit in exploring the tactics of the current administration.

 

The incumbent Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. isn’t exactly a popular figure among progressive groups like Akbayan. He is, after all, the son of a dictator who has greatly benefitted from the propaganda whitewashing the martial rule of his father (which recorded 11,103 counts of human rights violations.) However, they do agree with his stance on a few things and among them is the belief that the Philippines should not give up a square inch of their EEZ to foreign powers.

 

In line with this, Marcos has strengthened ties with the United States and its allies (which can help the Philippines impose international rule in the area.) His administration also welcomed the efforts of groups like Atin Ito and it began a transparency campaign set to expose Chinese harassment in the Philippine waters.

 

Because of this, he and all those who are aligned with such strategies have been met with criticism. On social media, accounts loyal to the Dutertes have used the term “warmongering” to describe the current administration and the activists pushing back against Chinese aggression. According to Tarriela, these seemingly Filipino-owned “troll accounts” have accused Marcos and groups like Atin Ito of being controlled by the US to provoke China. They have also been pushing messages that parrot China’s claims in the Philippine EEZ while repeating a reductive narrative claiming that if the Philippines continues to defy the Chinese, there will be war between the two countries and the Philippines—having a less developed army—will lose it. Tarriela disagrees and so does the “civilian commander.”

 

“It’s not that simple,” David said. Like Tarriela, she believes that the South China Sea Issue involving the Philippines will continue to be an intergenerational matter. And, for the Philippines to succeed in the end, the ones who will be taking the reins must be prepared. Hence, the current trajectory of Atin Ito: from sea to classroom.

 

Together with the Philippine Coast Guard, Atin Ito will be conducting school tours to better educate the youth on their rights to the controversial waters. They will also be explaining why it matters and how this issue has reached the state it is in. The talks, she said, will aim to cultivate the nationalism of the youth and inspire them to be more proactive. Furthermore, She, Tarriela and other members of Atin Ito will also be continuing talks to convince Filipinos to make better choices; to stop, as David said, “electing leaders who are subservient to the interests of China or other foreign powers;” they, “who can only sell our national interests for their own personal gain.” She didn’t name names but there are now surveys popping up that deem the former President Duterte as a prime candidate for the Philippine senate. His daughter, meanwhile, remains as an option for the presidency.

 

Whoever it was she was referring to, however, their plans are set. Atin Ito will continue their work even as pro-Chinese voices dismiss their actions as “US-led” or “unnecessarily provocative” if not “warmongering.”

 

“We’re just asserting what is rightfully ours,” she said. As to what this can ultimately lead to, David does not know yet. There are many possible endgames, she said, that may not even include war.

 

Tarriela thinks that it is still possible for Chinese government to understand that the Philippines—with the support of the international community as exhibited by the Hague ruling—simply won’t back down; he hopes that this will urge the larger nation to just abandon their claims. Akbayan’s Llamas believes in something more elaborate. He can see it possible for China to be internally affected by this issue and undergo changes that may benefit the Philippines. China is known for its heavy-handed control of its population, Llamas said. He therefore doesn’t dismiss the possibility of the Chinese people demanding change after seeing finally just how authoritarian their rulers are through the plight of the Filipinos.

 

“It won’t be solved overnight,” David said. As to when it may be resolved, she is not sure. But she does know this: the successes the Philippines has achieved as a country happened because civilians didn’t just stand by. They organized, got involved, and claimed what is there’s by right.

 

This May, at sea, with efforts that may be met with large ships and water cannons, they’ll get another chance to do just that.

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