A Chinese clam-harvesting fleet has been spotted in force in the South China Sea, a U.S.-based think-tank reported, amid increased patrols by American forces that test freedom of navigation in the disputed maritime region.
Fresh satellite images released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on Monday showed the Chinese boats near the Paracel Islands, which Beijing calls Xisha. Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the group of reefs and banks.
“Satellite imagery shows that clam harvesting boats have been operating with regularity at Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands since late 2018, as evidenced most clearly by the sediment plumes visible in images from April 11,” AMTI said in its report.
The report came out weeks after Manila, which has grown closer to China under the three-year-old presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, warned Beijing about Chinese ships that were seen swarming near an area it controls in the sea region.
“Those plumes, along with the scarring spread across the reef surface, are the telltale signs of the prop-digging method of extraction used during the earlier phase of clam harvesting,” AMTI said.
These activities have occurred despite China’s recent installation of a surveillance platform near the area – meaning that authorities in Beijing know about what is happening but are letting the harvesting go on unabated – according to the report.
The clam-harvesting fleet returned to the South China Sea “in force over the last six month” after leaving the area last year. AMTI said.
The boats have been monitored operating “frequently” in the Paracels as well as in Scarborough Shoal, a triangular-shape chain of reefs and rocks that lie about 198 km ( 123 miles) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, and which China effectively gained control of some years ago.
The Chinese fleet includes dozens of small fishing vessels accompanied “by a handful of larger motherships,” AMTI reported. The boats allegedly destroy swaths of coral reefs to harvest giant clams.
“The typical method employed by these poachers involved anchoring their boats and then dragging the reinforced props of their outboard motors across the reef surface to break up the coral, allowing the clams to be easily lifted out,” AMTI said.
In 2016, following a tense standoff between the navies of the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal, an international tribunal ruled in favor of Manila. Evidence presented then on behalf of the Philippines documented that Chinese clam extraction had damaged some 25,000 hectares of shallow reef surfaces.
China, however, ignored the ruling. President Duterte, who was elected two months before the tribunal issued its decision, has instead engaged with Beijing and his government has distanced itself from traditional Western allies like the United States. But more recently, he took a harder stance toward Beijing as he consolidated power through senatorial elections.
The fishermen of Bolinao
In Bolinao, a town on Luzon’s northwestern coast, subsistence and small-scale fishermen eke out a living by sailing near Scarborough.
They say they have been forced to fish on the periphery because of the large presence of Chinese boats in the contested waters. Oftentimes, the Filipino fishermen say, they see Chinese civilian vessels in the distance presumably monitoring their movements.
The plight of the local fishermen has escaped the attention of the Manila government. Prior to the restrictions around Scarborough Shoal, they said they had made a good living, with many fishermen being able to afford college education for their children.
Now, as the fishermen wait for the day when they can sail near the shoal again, they fish using a “payaw,” an artificial reef usually made of bamboo poles, where fish congregate.
“While the Duterte administration claimed that it has acted to protect our marine territory, the reality says otherwise. China still occupies eight reefs and rock formations in the West Philippine Sea while Filipino fishers are unable to fish freely in contested waters,” Fernando Hicap, leader of Pamalakaya, a fishermen’s association, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
He accused the government of selling out to the Chinese. As a result, what used to be a top source of livelihood to Filipino fishermen “has now turned into military installations with weapon systems,” he said.
AMTI published its report as the U.S. Navy said it had sailed a destroyer, the USS Preble, within 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) of Scarborough Shoal on Sunday to challenge what it described as “excessive maritime claims” by the Chinese in international waters.
“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” said Lt. Joe Keiley, spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet.
China’s foreign ministry immediately called the American move a provocation and said Washington should refrain from similar operations in the future.
Last week, the commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific region, Gen. Charles Brown, was in Manila to meet with top Filipino defense and military officials. He travelled to an air base near a former American base north of Manila, where U.S. forces have prepositioned some equipment covered under a defense deal with the Philippines.
Brown, during a meeting with a select group of reporters, reiterated that his government wanted a “peaceful region” including in the South China Sea, where the U.S. would continue to hold freedom of navigation flights as well.
“The key part is that we want to make sure we have a peaceful region … including in the South China Sea,” he said, noting that the Chinese had been busy increasing their “military capability” in islands they occupy there.
Brown was referring to recent announcements that Beijing had stationed missiles in islands it occupies in the sea region, particularly in close proximity to countries such as the Philippines.
Brown said U.S. military planes would fly on a daily basis over the disputed waters, but that the crews had standard operating procedures if and whenever the Chinese challenged them.
“We fly in and out of the South China Sea. I think it’s something all nations can do,” he said. “It’s not anything we don’t do.”
Meanwhile, former Philippine ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, who in March filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court against China for its alleged encroachment in the sea region, was detained in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
She was allegedly labelled as a “security threat” to China and denied entry to Hong Kong, where she was travelling with her family. Her lawyer said they were seeking a more detailed explanation.
Carpio-Morales was released after being briefly held at an immigration office at the airport, and was expected to fly back to the Philippines later on Tuesday.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo confirmed her detention and said the foreign ministry had been ordered to provide Carpio-Morales with “assistance.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.