Militia fishing ships ‘not on agenda’ as Chinese coastguard visits Philippines



The first Chinese coastguard ship ever to visit the Philippines was officially welcomed on Tuesday, as Manila called on Beijing to discuss ways of ensuring the safety of both countries’ fishermen at sea.

The controversial visit, which is being led by Commandant General Wang Zhongca and lasts until Friday, comes amid growing anger in the Philippines over China’s repeated incursions into both the country’s exclusive economic zone and what Manila claims as its territory in the South China Sea.

“The mere fact that they requested a port visit [shows] that this is part of a diplomatic effort by China to de-escalate the tension,” said the commandant of the Philippine coastguard, Admiral Joel Garcia. “I would say this is part of their intention to once and for all communicate and talk to the Philippine coastguard.”

The Chinese vessel arrived in Manila South Harbour on Monday carrying aid packages for Filipinos who have been displaced by the Taal volcano. Taal burst into life on Sunday, spewing lava and ash hundreds of metres into the air and prompting the evacuation of residents within a 14km radius.

“We believe that the visit will be a very good opportunity for both sides to demonstrate goodwill, deepen mutual understanding and trust as well as enhance friendship and cooperation,” said the Chinese embassy.

Critics accuse China of using “militia” vessels in disputed South China Sea waters to harass fishing boats from other claimant states. These vessels, allegedly, are either fishing boats that are occasionally co-opted into doing the military’s bidding or in some cases full-time militia vessels that are only made up to look like regular fishing boats.

Increasing incidents involving these “militia” vessels and other boats, including one case in which 22 Filipinos were thrown overboard when their fishing boat was rammed by a Chinese vessel, have prompted anger among the Philippine public and led many to question Tuesday’s visit.

Retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio slammed it, saying, “when your neighbour has seized your backyard and you still invite them to your dining room to eat, you’re condoning it”.

But Admiral Garcia downplayed such criticisms, saying the visit was an opportunity to talk. He told reporters the agenda had been strictly vetted by the Department of Foreign Affairs and centred mainly on fishermen’s safety, the joint conservation of natural resources and how to avoid incidents like the recent collision.

He said there was no proof that fishing boats were being used as a front by the Chinese military to harass Philippine vessels and that the matter would therefore not be discussed.

Reports of Filipino fishermen being harassed by the Chinese coastguard and fishing vessels were merely “isolated cases”, he said

“Even if we have conflicts, there is no other solution except diplomacy [and] to talk together face-to-face at one table and tell each other our complaints,” he said.

The Philippine defence establishment has not commented on the visit. The military has previously reported instances of Chinese coastguard vessels blocking its resupply missions to detachments on Pag-Asa island and Ayungin Shoal. The Philippine coastguard is a civilian agency attached to the Department of Transport and Communications; China’s coastguard is considered part of its military.

The Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has written extensively on the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in disputed South China Sea waters. In one report, titled “China’s most destructive boats return to the South China Sea”, it said “China’s coastguard maintains a constant presence at Scarborough Shoal” and said it was filmed “visiting” Philippine clam-harvesting vessels.

The think tank director Greg Poling told the South China Morning Post, “I can say that as far as I can tell there have been Chinese militia ships riding at anchor around Pag-asa nearly every day since December 20, 2018, when the Philippines started construction work on a beaching ramp. So we’re now seeing more than 385 days of a persistent paramilitary deployment. And it’s working; the Armed Forces of the Philippines has had to delay the construction repeatedly and now they’re more than a year behind schedule with very little work having been done.”

Poling said there were two types of militia vessels: “Some are full-time militia vessels and don’t appear to ever fish commercially. Others do fish much of the year but then are called up for militia service when needed. But most of those in the Spratly Islands never seem to fish.”

He said it was difficult to count just how many militia ships were present at any given time since “less than 5 per cent of Chinese fishing vessels in the South China Sea broadcast AIS [Automatic Identification System] signals, which are the most common way to track ships at sea. So the only way to identify them is with satellite imagery and radar, both of which are expensive and infrequent”.

“The last time we did that was [in 2019] when our report found there were about 300 Chinese militia vessels in port at Subi and Mischief Reefs and dozens more around Philippine and Vietnamese occupied islands at any given time.”