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Washington Requests China to Stop Intimidating Fishermen

ChinaNavy, China

Chinese soldiers in the disputed Spratly Archipelago. Chinese ships have been preventing Philippine fishing boats from sailing near Scarborough, leading to several cat-and-mouse skirmishes. PHOTO: REUTERS

The U.S. State Department has issued a request for China’s navy to refrain from harassing fishermen of other countries in the disputed South China Sea. At a news briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said, “We are aware of these press reports regarding the Chinese vessels operating near Jackson Atoll in the contested areas of the South China Sea,” adding, “We don’t want them using … their navy to intimidate other fishing vessels in that region.”

The U.S. request follows reports from Manila that Beijing had sent several ships to Jackson Atoll (Quirino Atoll) to block Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds. Jackson Atoll, an uninhabited ring-shaped coral reef 140 nautical miles west of Palawan Island, is a rich fishing ground some 61 kilometers from Mischief Reef, which Beijing wrested control of from Manila in 1995.   

Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., mayor of the Kalayaan municipality in the Spratly Islands, said he also saw “many” Chinese coast guard boats and five warships at the atoll for two consecutive days during a flyover last week.

As the news of the ships spread, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded by explaining that the Chinese Ministry of Transportation needed to dispatch ships to the area in order to salvage a fishing vessel that had run aground near Jackson Atoll in late 2015. Hong told reporters that Chinese ships had “persuaded fishing boats to leave the waters in an effort to ensure safety conditions for normal navigation,” although he did not specify why Chinese coast guard boats and five warships were needed for the effort.  

The Chinese naval action in the South China Sea is hardly new. Early last month, Chinese ships believed to be naval and maritime surveillance vessels harassed the Philippine Navy logistic ship BRP Laguna near Half Moon (Hasa-Hasa) Shoal, another traditional Filipino fishing ground some 60 nautical miles from the southern tip of Palawan Island.

The Philippines are not the only claimant in the South China Seas to have had their fishermen harassed. In Vietnam, authorities claim more than 20 Vietnamese fishing boats were attacked by Chinese vessels in 2015, including the following more notable incidents:

September 29

A Chinese ship slammed into a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel (Xisha in Chinese, Hoang Sa in Vietnamese) islands.  In a common maneuver, five Chinese men then boarded and proceeded to steal navigation devices, fishing equipment and their 2-ton catch of fish, before the boat eventually sank some 12 hours later.  The Vietnamese fishermen were able to remain afloat in their life vests for four hours before being rescued.  

June 19

A Vietnamese fishing boat operating off the Hoang Sa archipelago was boarded by a Chinese crew, which destroyed its fishing gear and confiscated an ICOM walkie-talkie, a positioning system, and about five metric tons five metric tons of catch worth US$13,780.  

June 10

Four ships surrounded a Vietnamese fishing boat and then forcefully boarded the fishing boat, forcing the 11 Vietnamese fishermen to transfer all of their catch—about six metric tons—to the other vessels.  

While the Philippines Foreign Ministry confirmed reports from Beijing that the Chinese coast guard vessels had left the area by Wednesday, it may not be long before they are back to the same atoll, or harass other fishermen trying to make a living in other waters of the South China Sea.  



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666