China’s Menacing Words for a Boat in Disputed Waters: ‘Get Out!’

July 13, 2016 at 12:30

China’s Menacing Words for a Boat in Disputed Waters: ‘Get Out!’

Javier C. Hernández, The New York Times | July 12, 2016 9:00 AM ET

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The crew of a Chinese Coast Guard ship photographs the Motoryacht Isla in the area of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, June 18, 2016

We could see the glistening turquoise waters in the distance, a haven where deep-sea waves soften and, fishermen say, the grouper and snapper could feed a village for eternity.

But waiting in the waters, the mouth of Scarborough Shoal, was a 46-metre Chinese coast guard ship. If we were to get more than a glimpse of this speck of coral and rock — the latest potential point of contention between China and the United States in the South China Sea — our boat would have to be quick.

Capt. Alex O. Tagapan, who usually takes tourists on sightseeing cruises, steered toward the entrance of the boomerang-shaped atoll and accelerated. Turning to a small statue of Santo Niño de Cebú, a patron saint of the Philippines known for miraculous powers, he prayed.

Within minutes, the Chinese sent a speedboat painted with the coast guard’s red stripes racing toward us. “Get out! Get out!” a man on the boat wearing a bamboo hat and an orange vest shouted in English, waving his arms.

Over the past two years, China has worked to strengthen its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea, dredging sand to turn scattered reefs and atolls into islands despite protests from neighbors and the United States.

Now, China is said to be considering plans to build Scarborough Shoal into an island, too, an effort that would be its most ambitious and provocative yet. China would gain an outpost on the eastern side of the sea, more than 850 kilometres from its mainland but just 225 kilometres from the Philippines.

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A speedboat launched from a Chinese Coast Guard orders the Motor yacht Isla to leave the Scarborough Shoal

That could bolster China’s claim to the sea, including oil exploration and fishing rights, and could substantially extend its radar, air and missile coverage, including over U.S. forces in the Philippines.

Last month, I set out to see this patch of water, which has inspired bluster from two superpowers but which Charles Darwin once described in almost poetic terms: “a hundred fathoms, colored blue.”

“The Chinese are relentless. There’s nothing we can do. We just have to go home”

Scarborough does not beckon visitors. Named after a British tea ship that crashed in 1784, it has long been known for shipwrecks, ensnaring Swedish steamers and French cargo vessels caught in typhoons. But as I traveled the coast of the Philippines looking for a boat to take me, the chief worry was China, which wrested control of the reef from the Philippines four years ago.

People everywhere were reluctant to make the journey, afraid of harassment by Chinese ships. Filipino fishermen, clutching bottles of rum, described playing cat-and-mouse games in the moonlight with Chinese crews armed with water cannons and assault rifles.

“The Chinese are relentless,” said Renante Etac, 40, the captain of a ship that fishes near Scarborough. “There’s nothing we can do. We just have to go home.”

In Subic Bay, where the U.S. military once maintained its largest overseas naval base, I stumbled upon the Motoryacht Isla, a boat that took a group of television journalists to Scarborough a few years ago.

Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

The Motoryacht Isla leaves the Subic Bay in the Philippines, Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

But the crew was too scared to make another trip, said Rafael G. Ongpin, the boat’s owner. The last time, he said, the Isla was chased by Chinese warships that maneuvered aggressively to block it, generating large waves that could have swamped it. Crew members worried that the Chinese might sink the Isla or imprison them if they returned.

When I pressed him, Ongpin found a new crew, led by Tagapan, a quiet man with a sailor’s swagger who saw the loss of Scarborough as a bruise to national pride.

“It is time for us to stand up on our own,” he said.

On a Friday afternoon, we departed. If all went according to plan, it would take 20 hours to reach Scarborough, covering about the same distance as between Miami and the Bahamas.

Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

Capt. Alex O. Tagapan, center, on the Motoryacht Isla as it heads towards the Scarborough Shoal Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

It is easy to miss Scarborough. China has suggested it is an island, a term reserved in international law for land capable of supporting human habitation. That distinction would allow Beijing to claim an exclusive economic zone, including rights to oil, fish and other resources.

On Tuesday, an international tribunal in The Hague is expected to rule on a request by the Philippines to invalidate many of China’s claims in the South China Sea, including several related to Scarborough. China has boycotted the tribunal, asserting that ancient maps establish its sovereignty.

While the tribunal cannot decide Scarborough’s rightful owner, the Philippines has asked it to declare that Scarborough is not an island that can be used to establish an exclusive economic zone.

Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

A Chinese Coast Guard ship follows the Motoryacht Isla after it was ordered to leave the Scarborough Shoal Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

From my vantage point on the Isla, it seemed like a strong argument. As our boat approached the atoll’s entrance, I couldn’t see anything protruding from the water.

What I could see was a Chinese coast guard ship. The last time the Isla had made the journey to Scarborough, the Chinese intercepted it 8 kilometres from the shoal. Now we were less than a kilometre away.

Suddenly, the Chinese speedboat whirred up behind us. The man in the bamboo hat — one of two men aboard — gesticulated as if conducting a symphony.

Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

A Filipino fishing boat near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

The Isla’s crew asked permission to enter Scarborough, first by radio and then by shouting to the men on the speedboat. The requests were met with silence.

After 15 minutes, the crew wanted to turn around. I asked Tagapan if we could circle back or find another way in, but he was uneasy. The Chinese ship was gaining on us, and a larger, 1,000-tonne coast guard cutter with water cannons had appeared on the horizon.

“We don’t want to get shot,” Tagapan said.

As we reversed course, the smaller ship pulled within 30 metres, and its crew snapped photographs of us. The cutter came close enough to buffet us with its large wake.

Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times

After an hour, the Chinese ships turned back.

Not far from Scarborough, we came upon a small fishing boat, the JJ2. Its 16-member crew, some wearing bandannas and Chicago Bulls jerseys, whistled and cheered as we approached.

The boat’s captain, Paolo Pumicpic Jr., told us that he and his crew had encountered the Chinese coast guard a few days earlier and had been chased away.
Pumicpic, whose father and grandfather once fished at Scarborough, said he and his crew used to catch about $1,000 worth of fish daily. Now, he said, they managed less than $100 worth.

In one instance last year, he said, Chinese officers boarded his boat, beat crew members with bamboo sticks, cut their fishing lines and seized their catch.

“They are salot, a plague,” he said of the Chinese coast guard. “We used to take refuge inside the shoal when the seas got rough. Now we can’t go there.”


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