By Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
BAJO DE MASINLOC, Zambales—In this uninhabited shoal, you see the
most beautiful hues of green and blue in the waters of the West
Philippine Sea. Glistening clear water defines the base of the rocks and
reefs. At low tide, fishermen actually walk on them.
At first look, Bajo de Masinloc could be a tourist attraction. Except that it is in the middle of nowhere.
Those who go there see Bajo de Masinloc (internationally known as
Scarborough Shoal and locally called Panatag Shoal) as an opportunity
for trade and an important territorial marker.
On Thursday, fishing vessels allegedly from China were harvesting
giant clams and corals enough to fill their black-and-red mother ship.
Chalky smoke rise in the air as the small vessels pulled their catch
Nearby were three Chinese Coast Guard ships with bow numbers 3210, 3062 and 3383.
Not far away, Filipino fishing boats milled around, as did what appeared to be two Vietnamese fishing vessels.
“Those are our corals and giant clams,” our pilot said over his headset as he pointed to the haul on the Chinese fishing vessel.
His copilot noted that the men in the smaller vessels were
wearing wet suits. “They must have been diving for the harvest,” he
Inquirer photographer Niño Jesus Orbeta was told how to
distinguish the vessels from one another: the Philippine-owned boats had
“katig” (outriggers); the Vietnamese were slightly rounded; the Chinese
were guarded by the Chinese Coast Guard.
A white ship was cruising toward a Filipino fishing vessel when our plane arrived, but stopped when we flew lower.
Our pilot said the foreign vessel did not look like it was going
to drive the Filipino vessel away. “The Chinese Coast Guard had already
passed the other Filipino vessels and did nothing,” he said.
The scene observed by the Inquirer appeared benign, compared to
the standoff between Philippine and Chinese surveillance vessels here in
2012, and to an incident last January, in which the Chinese Coast
Guard fired water cannon at Filipino fishermen to drive them away from
But the harmful effects of harvesting corals and giant clams, and
the slow destruction of the shoal, on the ecosystem are far-reaching.
Also, the steady presence of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels,
which number from three to five at any given time, indicates how the
Chinese have effectively seized the shoal.
There was no Philippine Coast Guard vessel in the area. But the Naval Forces Northern Luzon regularly monitors the shoal.
One way of surveillance is through the Naval Air Group under the Philippine fleet of the Philippine Navy.
The Naval Air Group’s maritime surveillance takes place amid
questions about who is guarding Philippine territory against China’s
incursions and protecting Filipino fishermen.
“The Navy never left Bajo de Masinloc. The Navy aircraft flies
there regularly,” Col. Ariel Caculitan, Naval Air Group commander, told
the Inquirer in an interview.
Caculitan said the military had not abandoned Bajo de Masinloc,
contrary to criticism following the Philippine government’s recalling
its ships to ease tension during the 2012 standoff with the Chinese
The Naval Air Group is one of the military units used by the Armed Forces in guarding the West Philippine Sea.
“We feel good whenever we fly over Bajo de Masinloc. We feel we
are doing the honorable thing for the country. There is always a patriot
in us,” Caculitan said. “Without singling out any country, our point
is, we are protecting what is ours.”
Bajo de Masinloc is a rich fishing ground 220 kilometers off
Zambales province. A ship from Zambales traveling at 12 knots would take
10 hours to reach Bajo de Masinloc. At 18 knots, it would take nearly
Going to the shoal
The Inquirer took a small fixed-wing aircraft for the aerial
observation of Bajo de Masinloc that took us nearly four hours,
including the 35-minute survey over the disputed shoal.
With nothing to see but clouds in the sky and the sea below, it
was easy to doze off. But the static chatter of a man and a woman
speaking in what sounded like Chinese, which we heard on our headphones,
kept us awake.
The conversation lasted a few minutes then stopped. “They could be fishermen,” our pilot said.
As we neared it, Bajo de Masinloc looked breathtakingly beautiful. And it was quiet on the headphones.
Our first task was to look for the Chinese vessels. They were not
hard to spot. The Chinese Coast Guard ships proudly flew their red
The sight of the harvested giant clams and corals only made us gasp.
The huge Chinese fishing vessel reportedly had come from Ayungin
Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), another disputed territory in the Spratly
archipelago further south.
The Inquirer learned that two weeks ago, this vessel was spotted in Bajo de Masinloc still without the harvest.
We circled over Bajo de Masinloc three times, once low enough for us to clearly see the fishermen looking up at us.
Each small vessel looked like a house in disarray, with laundry hanging outside and styro boxes stacked all over inside.
Fishermen, we learned, stay in Bajo de Masinloc for weeks, even
months, to make the most of the long travel and the rich fishing ground.
“Chinese incursions are actually forms of psychological warfare
to confuse us, or simply put, to confuse the enemy. It’s a simple yet
sophisticated operational tactic using the art of war, which is employed
by our giant neighbor,” Chester Cabalza told the Inquirer when sought
for comment last week on the Jan. 27 water cannon incident.
Cabalza, a professor at the University of the Philippines and the
National Defense College of the Philippines, specializes in China
Cabalza said the Chinese Coast Guard “didn’t arrest our fishermen because [Bajo de Masinloc] is within the West Philippine Sea.”
He cited Administrative Order No. 29, Section 1, issued by
President Aquino, which defines the extent of the maritime areas on the
western side of the Philippine archipelago and calls the waters there
West Philippine Sea.
“The West Philippine Sea only refers to the part of the South
China Sea within the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and the Bajo de
Masinloc. It represents a portion of the South China Sea that the
Philippines claims as part of its maritime territory,” Cabalza said.
For security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio, the Chinese arresting
Filipino fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc “can lead to a messy situation
such as possible loss of life as more lethal weapons may be used to
quell the resistance of the Filipino crew.”
“The use of water cannon is considered by the Chinese a more
convenient way to drive away the fishermen who are in smaller boats. All
the Chinese need to do is to disrupt any fishing operation by the
Filipinos, which is easy for them as typical Philippine fishing boats
are flimsy and small, compared to the large trawlers of other
countries,” Custodio said.
For him, the Philippine government has not placed any deterrence
in Bajo de Masinloc “since it is for all intents and purposes being
occupied by the Chinese.”
Cabalza said the “only way we can place enough deterrence in Panatag Shoal and Ayungin Shoal is through legal means.”
“Diplomacy and the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos)
should prevail. Secondary deterrence would only be the deployment of our
Navy and Coast Guard ships to monitor and patrol our maritime
territories in Panatag and Ayungin shoals,” he said.