The Philippines’ Muted Response to Scarborough Shoal Incident Highlights Flaws

The Philippines’ Muted Response to Scarborough Shoal Incident Highlights Flaws

Chinese coastguardsman holding Philippine fishing vessel (Photo: Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Date:

On January 22nd, the Philippine government announced that an incident occurred between Philippine fishermen and the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) at Scarborough Shoal on January 12th. The Philippine government became aware of the incident through several videos posted to social media. The country responded by launching an investigation into the incident to determine how to respond, which included diplomatic protests. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also admitted that the country had no Philippine maritime law enforcement vessels monitoring the shoal. However, the PCG encouraged fishermen to continue to fish, promising, that there will be Philippine government vessels monitoring the area in the future.

January 12th Incident

One of the people who filmed the encounter, a fisherman named Jack Tabat from Zambales province, gave a statement to the PCG on the 20th about the incident. The incident occurred when five CCG personnel approached a group of fishermen picking seashells in shoal’s southern entrance during low tide. The Philippines fishermen reported that the CCG personnel used sirens as they approached the group. Four coastguardsmen then left the boat and swam/waded towards the reef while chasing the individuals and instructing them to throw the shells back into the sea. The remaining coastguardsman in the boat also grabbed on and held a fishing boat during the confrontation while telling the individual in the boat to toss their shells into the water. Another CCG vessel also chased a Philippine fishing out of the area during the encounter between the CCG and the fishermen.

Philippine Coast Guard Spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela (Photo: Arnel Tacson/The Daily Inquirer)

Philippines Response

The Philippines’ response began with the PCG investigating the January 12th incident. The PCG located the other individuals involved in the incident to get their sworn statements when they return to the Philippines. They will then turn over the report to the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) and other government departments to determine how the country would respond. Specifically, the Department of Foreign Affairs would decide to diplomatically respond to the incident, likely through summoning the Chinese Ambassador to formally protest the incident. Furthermore, the Philippine Minister of Foreign Affairs could also issue a diplomatic demarche to the ambassador to protest the incident and ask for an explanation from China.

The PCG admitted that it or Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) did have any vessels near the shoal on the day of the incident. However, the PCG said that both organizations will increase its ability to maintain a presence and encouraged fishermen to continue to fish or gather seashells at the shoal. Specifically, they will now coordinate with the BFAR to make sure there will always be a vessel from either the PCG or BFAR on station at or near Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine Navy said that they can also deploy vessels to Scarborough Shoal to supplement the PCG and PFAR because they have a standing order to have a presence at the feature.

Analysis

The PCG did not specify why neither the PCG nor BFAR had any vessels in the area on January 12th and did not say if they launched an investigation to determine the reason for the lack of vessels. However, the lapse in PCG or BFAR vessels may indicate that the agencies do not coordinate when they will be deployed to the area to include times and dates. Furthermore, the lack of coordination may also extend to not informing the agencies of any gaps in their presence patrols. Any Philippine Naval presence would likely increase tensions with China and cause the country to deploy People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels to the shoal as a response. China could also respond by deploying more CCG or Maritime Militia vessels to block and harass Philippine fishermen that attempt to fish at the shoal.

The January 12th incident occurred six days before China and the Philippines met in Shanghai for the eighth meeting of the China-Philippines Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea. While it is likely that the fishermen informed the Philippine government via radio of the incident shortly after it occurred, the government likely did not make the incident public until after the meeting. The reason why the Philippine government would wait until after the meeting to disclose the incident is not increase already high tensions between the countries. Furthermore, the government also had to wait until the fishermen returned to port to obtain videos or other photographic evidence of the incident to reinforce its and disprove China’s side of the incident.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju.
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