Scarborough Shoal was a refuge for Filipino fishermen. Then Chinese boats moved in

For the Philippines, the triangular chain of reefs offers a warning about China’s intentions.
By Luna Pham for RFA and BenarNews
In Masinloc, Philippines
Scarborough Shoal was a refuge for Filipino fishermen. Then Chinese boats moved in A Filipino fisherman dries squid on his boat while a Chinese coast guard ship lurks in the background near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Feb. 15, 2024.
(Ted Aljibe/AFP)

One day in early April 2012, a Philippine naval surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats inside Scarborough Shoal, a triangular chain of reefs around 125 nautical miles (232 kilometers) from Luzon, the Philippines' main island.

For decades, the country's fishermen had trawled the area’s waters and used its protective lagoon as a refuge from typhoons.

But this day would mark a turning point. Less than 48 hours after the Chinese boats were spotted, they were met by the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the Philippine navy’s largest patrol vessel. Armed sailors boarded the Chinese vessels, where they said they found endangered species of coral, giant clams and sharks.

Chinese news reports accused the Philippines of harassing and humiliating the Chinese crew. Beijing sent two marine surveillance ships to investigate.

Today, Filipino fishermen say they find themselves routinely run off in those South China Sea waters, which have also become a flashpoint in a potential conflict between superpowers.

“When our boat arrived, almost immediately we saw a Chinese coast guard ship. Then it became three,” Anthony Manreal Collado, a local fisherman, told Radio Free Asia, recalling an outing at the end of 2023. “They sent speed boats to chase us away. They shouted: Go away! Go away! and did not let us get inside the shoal.”

A Chinese Coast Guard ship uses a water cannon to douse a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel near Scarborough Shoal, Dec. 9, 2023. (Image from Philippine Coast Guard video via AFP)

This story is part of a series of articles examining the South China Sea conflict. Previously, RFA examined where the dispute is now at its most tense, around the Second Thomas Shoal. There, Philippine vessels regularly clash with Chinese ships.

Scarborough Shoal is less active, if only because China now effectively controls it, even though the international standoff in 2012 led to a landmark international arbitration case brought by Manila that successfully challenged Beijing’s historical claims to most of the South China Sea.

Both shoals lie within the boundaries of a bulging territorial map that China says gives it authority over most of the South China Sea. For some Philippine officials, the story of Scarborough Shoal offers a cautionary tale about China’s ambitions.

This week, the Philippines and the United States began their annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military exercise. This year’s drills will feature coastal defense exercises off Palawan and Luzon islands, and will take place for the first time in South China Sea waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

With some 16,700 troops, the exercise this year is the most expansive Balikatan to date, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

Diplomatic solution

The spotting of the Chinese fishing vessels 12 years ago led to a 10-week standoff between the two countries.

After initial efforts to negotiate a bilateral solution, the Philippines asked the United States and other Southeast Asian nations to intervene.

Kurt Campbell – who was then the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs – met several times with his Chinese counterpart, Fu Ying, vice foreign minister in charge of Asian affairs, to broker an end to the standoff. 

Fu Ying also met a dozen times with then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s envoy, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.

In this image released Sept. 25, 2023, a member of the Philippine coast guard cuts a rope attached to a floating barrier installed by China that blocked the entrance to Scarborough Shoal. (Philippine Coast Guard via AFP)

According to Philippine government sources, Campbell managed to mediate an agreement with China for an immediate withdrawal of vessels from both sides in early June 2012. Manila observed the agreement but Beijing reneged on it, the sources said.

In her 2012 book, “Seeing the World 2,” Fu Ying offered a different explanation.

“Government boats from both sides had withdrawn from the Huangyan Dao lagoon by June 5, 2012,” she wrote, referring to the shoal by its Chinese name.

Yet “the Philippines’ ambitions for the rocks did not diminish after the standoff,” Fu wrote. 

Chinese government vessels only returned to “keep an eye” on Huangyan Dao and to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and property. 

“The international media reports were filled with the Philippines’ one-sided story, and China was depicted as a big nation, ‘bullying’ one of its smaller neighbors,” the Chinese ex-vice minister wrote.

In his book “The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia,” Campbell wrote that the standoff “ultimately resulted in its loss of the Scarborough Shoal” to China.


Ely Ratner, the current assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, wrote in 2013 that “there was no question that Beijing had scored a tactical victory at Manila’s expense.”

Beijing “exploited its asymmetry of stakes with the United States,” Ratner wrote. “In response, U.S. officials were cautious, not wanting to provoke China into conflict.”

Together with China’s successful isolation of the Philippines through the ASEAN regional bloc, Beijing’s scheme “amounted to a Chinese victory.”

The last straw

After it was unable to persuade China to leave, the Philippines government brought a case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which adjudicates maritime disputes.

“Scarborough Shoal was the watershed and the final straw that prompted Manila to file its case against China at the arbitral tribunal in the same year,” said Aries Arugay, a visiting senior scholar at the Yusof Ishak Institute – a research organization in Singapore.

By then, Manila had already suffered an embarrassing loss of territory it claimed as its own when China took over the Mischief Reef, an area that is also located well within the Philippines’ EEZ as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory.


Tensions simmer near shoal both China and the Philippines claim

Philippines, China accuse each other of ship ramming

Tension rises between China and Manila over disputed reefs

Seized by China during the 1990s, the reef is now an artificial island with a large naval base that hosts an airport with a 2,700-meter runway and radar and missile systems. 

The powerful fortress is just 129 nautical miles (239 kilometers) from the island of Palawan.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against all China’s claims, including to Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal. The panel recognized them as parts of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines.

Leonardo Cuaresma, one of the local leaders of the fishermen’s group Pamalakaya, sits near the waterside in Masinloc, Feb. 26, 2024. (Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews)

But Beijing dismissed the ruling. It says its territorial claims are based on historic boundaries.

Although it has not built anything on the Scarborough Shoal since 2016, China does impose its will from time to time, including through fishing bans. 

China’s restrictions have led to a noticeable reduction – up to two thirds – of what fishermen said they normally catch. 

Efren Porones, a boat captain, told RFA that he had been fired at with a water cannon and driven away by the Chinese before. The 62-year-old lives with his two teenage daughters in a small, old house next to the fish market in Masinloc, a municipality in Luzon’s Zambales province. 

His wife is forced to work in Saudi Arabia to make up for the drop in income from fishing.

Rodrigo Duterte’s term as president, from 2016 to 2022, brought some relief, Porones said. Duterte’s pro-China policies led to an easing of restrictions on Filipino fishermen, who at times were allowed back near the shoal.

But with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.  promising a tougher stance, egged on by a frustrated citizenry, the barriers have gone back up. 

“The worst thing is that we cannot get inside the lagoon anymore,” Porones said. “That’s where we fishermen come to shelter from typhoons, but now it’s off limits.”

A fisherman weighs his catch at the market in Masinloc, Feb. 27, 2024. (Luna Pham/BenarNews)

Without that safety net, the fishermen are more reluctant to spend days out at sea for fear of being caught in a storm. As many as a third of the area fishermen once relied on the fishing grounds around Scarborough that their families had fished for decades, according to Leonardo Cuaresma, who was one of them. 

Swarming the sea

The Masinloc fish market shows the result. Though the market still opens before dawn everyday, the catch on offer is only about half of what it was. Instead of big grouper and tuna, the stalls now sell mostly anchovies, mackerel and small tuna, caught nearby by smaller boats.

After 30 years, Tolomeo Forones, 69, said he had to give up fishing for the steady paycheck as a janitor at a local school. “All because of China,” Forones said, “That makes me angry.”

In his opinion, the Philippine government is too permissive. “They only send out notes to protest. We need to fight.”

Chinese vessels drive the Filipino boats out by swarming the waters around Scarborough Shoal, said Ray Powell, director of the SeaLight project at Stanford University in California. 

The project is aimed at exposing China’s “gray-zone” tactics in the South China Sea. Gray-zone activities are coercive and harmful to other countries but not acts of war and have been used actively by the Chinese government in maritime disputes.

A fisherman positions his boat after unloading his catch at dawn in Masinloc, Feb 27, 2024. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)

Using automatic identification signals transmitted by ships, Powell’s team has detected dozens of Chinese vessels at Scarborough almost every day.

“Swarming is a commonly used tactic involving to overwhelm, intimidate and assert dominance,” a SeaLight report in 2023 said.

More than a decade after the Scarborough standoff, Filipino officials still fear a further escalation, and perhaps another Chinese naval base in its backyard. 

“The ball is in China’s court,” said political scientist Aries Arugay.

“Manila only wants the shoal as a shelter for its fishermen, maybe some structure to help with fishing but nothing beyond that, no militarization, not even a coast guard post because the Philippines under Marcos doesn’t want to be seen as altering the status quo.

“But if China put some military installation here, then it will be a major act of aggression that intensifies the tension,” he added.

Edited by Jim Snyder, Imran Vittachi and Boer Deng


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Ruben Matigas
Apr 27, 2024 12:45 PM

The tik-tok surveillance, the unfair trade practices, the breach in freedom of navigation are just among Tsina’s circumventing foreign relations. The indigenous all along are rude and inherently deceivers in every circumstance they can. Expedient to work with Asian allies now because the adversary beefing up encompassing recognized sovereign territories in the whole west Pacific sea. UNCLOS did not even acknowledge the existence of their imaginary 9-dash line. Know the argument completely before the international court … do not assume can occupy arbitrarily using deceit.

Mexico Guinares
Apr 29, 2024 07:49 AM

When the American bases( Subic and Clark) were closed , the chinese filled the vacuum.

Jan Paraguay
Apr 30, 2024 09:02 AM

If the Senkaku Islands had been in the South China Sea, China would never have dared to build an illegal navy base there. If Japan had been a South East Asian country, China would never have dared build runways and buildings. That’s because Japan is stronger than us South East Asian countries which are Weak. South East Asian governments are weak, and that’s why China dared to build an illegal navy base in our sea. If India had been a South East Asian country, China would never have dared construct anything on the South China Sea islands because India has a strong Navy. (If anything, the South China Sea belongs to the Bajau seapeople.) The only reason China dared to construct anything was because most of the South East Asian nations are weak. We must stop buying China goods and services and enticing their customers. We must be self-sufficient and not dependent on China in any way. China is not a country, but a colony. It has practiced expansionism since dynastic times, and in the modern age it is practicing irredentism via small-scale takeovers. We will Not let the South China Sea become like Tibet, or the India-China Border dispute, and the Russia-China dispute for the Bolshoi Island. Everyone has to send their registered mail paper opposition to China’s government to be filed with each of their map publications, because China will use these maps in 100 years to lay claim to territories. The Senkaku Islands are at least safe for the time being from China’s astonishing opinion that it is its own.