I was expecting trouble from the Chinese Coast Guard, but I wasn’t expecting the weather to be even more hostile. Ten hours out to sea in a little Filipino fishing canoe called a bangka and I am in the middle of the first typhoon of the season. It’s night and there are screaming 40-knot winds, waves crashing over the boat, torrential rain and the rank aroma of vomit and diesel fumes in the air, while I am literally clinging to the main mast for dear life. It’s like a scene from fucking Moby Dick.
Having left from the southern tip of Palawan (the Philippines), even as local police and border officials tried to stop us, we were headed for Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratley islands. Our plans were to resupply a dozen Filipino marines living on a rusting old landing craft from World War II. Known as the Sierra Madre or L57, it had been deliberately beached atop the reef more than 20 years ago to claim Filipino sovereignty.
The captain is old enough to have weathered a few storms and knows when it is time to turn back. It’s too dangerous to head to port so we spend the next 24 hours riding the swell back and dropping anchor near the coast, hoping it won’t drag and have us dashed against the reef. We spend a few days ashore in a Muslim village where some of the volunteers decide to leave. Those of us left have to summon enough enthusiasm to try again, and we do.
This is how, in mid-2016, I found myself in a fishing boat with a dozen patriots from a group called Kalayaan Atin Ito (KAI), trying to plant the Filipino flag on disputed reefs in the South China Sea, or as they call it, the West Philippine Sea.
I ask their leader, Vera Joy Ban-Eg, why this group of young volunteers are here. Ms Ban-Eg, a former army lawyer, says, “We are not nationalists, we are patriots. We have to do something to show the Filipino people that this region belongs to us so that we can continue to travel there and our fishermen can fish there, like they have always done.”
Onboard for the second attempt we have boxes of food, a case of beer, DVDs, a dozen live chickens and a goat for the troops on L57, who must survive by fishing their reef and relying on food drops every few months from the Philippines Air Force. Chinese Coast Guard ships block the entrance to the shoal, preventing the Philippine Navy from resupplying its own troops there.
This is a maritime Alamo unlike anything I have ever seen: a handful of isolated Filipino marines, surrounded by Chinese ships, desperately flying the flag to prevent the further annexation by China of the entire South China Sea.
It is one reef in a sea of disputed reefs that have seen regional nations scramble over the past 50 years to claim. For years, there have been quiet battles between Navies, fishermen and Coast Guards among claimant nations, but the stakes are rising as China ignores the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling and the US and Australia continue to assert the right to do freedom of navigation patrols.
Some analysts worry Australia is “sleep-walking” into a conflict with China by following the US into this cauldron. Others suggest Australia needs to harden up and support neighbouring Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam as they try to hold the line against an expanding China. Whatever your views, this explosive region is somewhere that we need to get a grip on. That begins with some history.
For years, antiquarian map dealers in dusty shops around the world have been doing a roaring trade in historic maps depicting the dozens of small islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Regional governments have sent agents to find maps that can help them “weaponise” history by helping build legal cases to claim sovereignty.
This is an ancient trade route which for 1000 years connected China and Japan with traders from Java, Borneo, India and everywhere across Asia. Today it is estimated half the world’s trade passes through these waters, making it the world’s most strategic waterway.
While ancient kingdoms traded through these waterways, no- one claimed sovereignty over the reefs until recent decades. Ironically, the old maps that highlighted these little reefs and shoals mentioned them primarily as navigational aids so captains could skirt them, rather than becoming shipwrecked on shallow reefs, as so many did. These “treacherous shoals” were places to avoid, not claim.
I can see just how shallow as we get closer to L57, more than 26 hours into our second attempt to get there. I soon realise why the KAI volunteers have chosen to use a shallow-draft fishing boat despite the cramped conditions. One is that we look like a normal fishing boat as seen through the binoculars of watching Navies. The second reason becomes apparent when we have spotted a large Chinese Coast Guard cutter moving at speed towards us, with its siren wailing and demands for us to stop. With our target L57 a few kilometres ahead of us, we are able to move smoothly over the shallow reef while the Chinese cutter has to stop chasing us or it will hit the reef. Clear! With whoops from the crew we speed on, focused on the looming rust bucket ahead while guitars gently weep to the strains of patriotic songs.
The Filipino marines are excited to have visitors bearing gifts and we spend half the day chatting and snorkelling to see the conditions of the reef. Not good: it is easy to compare patches of pristine coral next to areas where the reef has been stripped of life. Giant clam shells once thrived here and all that’s left is broken bits of white coral. The marines assert that as part of China’s reclamation activities to build and militarise reefs, they have been sending teams of divers underwater to inject cyanide into the coral. By killing the reefs they make it easier to crush the coral and use it for building material to create raised islands from submerged reefs. As we leave L57 we notice what looks at first like a Chinese fishing boat but it is actually an empty dive boat, its divers probably underwater nearby.
With all the focus on geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, it is easy to overlook that a great environmental crime is also underway here as competing nations – but mainly China – overfish the region and degrade the reefs which ultimately support millions of people. China’s government subsidises the Chinese fishing fleet, allowing them to range widely across the Pacific hoovering up fish while acting as the eyes and ears of the Chinese military. Filipino and other fishing fleets struggle to compete since their fuel is not subsidised.
Increasingly, the Chinese fishing fleet has become something of a grey zone between civilian and military. In recent years, China has established a fishing militia – known as its “third force” – whose members are armed and move around in fishing boats with steel hulls so they can ram the wooden hulls of fishing boats belonging to the Filipinos or Vietnamese.
The two most volatile areas involve Filipino fishermen and China in the eastern Spratleys, and between Vietnamese fishermen and the Chinese around the Paracel islands; once Vietnamese, but occupied by China since a fierce battle in 1974. A recent pivot by Manila under President Duterte towards Beijing has calmed tensions in that area, with an agreement to allow Filipino fishermen to operate in Chinese-controlled areas such as Scarborough Shoal, but many Filipinos are wary of any deals with China. Malaysia and Brunei have also gone quiet on their claims as they look to China.
Indonesia and Vietnam continue to draw lines in the sand against China’s military expansion in the South China Sea, but right now, Vietnam has found itself largely alone, facing an ancient rival. In 1974 China took the Paracels and has been working towards absorbing all the Spratleys ever since.
Nonetheless, the Vietnamese are on the frontline of South China Sea confrontations now as competing nations have so far kept their Navies from intervening to avoid escalation. It is a delicate Coast Guard war instead, as fishermen and Coast Guard vessels manoeuvre in rival waters. There are incidents every week, if not every day; chases, boardings, beatings and sinkings. Much of it goes on under the radar.
This could be the region where Australia’s military becomes entangled in the years ahead, while a maverick President Trump has already signalled a more confrontational approach to China, especially if the US formally recognises Taiwan.
Back in Manila after our trip, I catch up with Vera Joy and the KAI crew on the night of the UNCLOS tribunal ruling. There have been press conferences during the day and much anticipation. When the TV fails to work in the booked venue, there is a last-minute scramble to find a nearby place with decent cable TV reception. Suddenly we are all squeezing into a Shakey’s pizza joint and turning up the live coverage.
The room goes batshit when the Hague ruling is announced: that China has no legal claim to any of the reefs it has been fortifying in the Spratleys. It is a major victory for the Philippines, which brought the case to court, and I can see tears of joy among the KAI crew as they yell and wave their flags.
China’s vast fishing fleet and blue-water Navy are sailing ever further into Pacific. What happens in the South China Sea from here on determines much of the peace and security in our region. Next time I go to sea though, I just have to remember to avoid typhoon season: running the gauntlet of a small Chinese armada is enough to deal with, thank you.