NOVEMBER 2023 : THE JOURNEY

A CITIZEN-LED CAMPAIGN TO HONOR OUR WEST PHILIPPINE SEA FISHERFOLK AND FRONTLINERS


Context

Due to territorial disputes and geopolitical tensions that have developed as a result of China's military expansionism and aggression, the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has grown to be a cause of major concern for the international community. China's flagrant disregard for international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Philippines' historic Arbitral Ruling victory before The Hague have led to the illegal construction of artificial islands, the militarization of the area, escalating harassment of Filipino fisherfolks, and infringement on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of both the Philippines and its neighbors.



Filipino fisherfolks who rely on the resources in the area have long experienced harassment from China. Chinese sea vessels and its maritime militia often violate Philippine territorial waters, intimidating and obstructing Filipino fishing boats from reaching traditional fishing sites. Filipino fisherfolks claim that Chinese ships have threatened them, intimidated them, and even taken their catch and fishing gear. This resulted in the ramming of a Filipino fishing boat in Recto Bank in 2019, which forced the 22 Filipino fishermen on board to abandon their ailing boat and expose themselves to the choppy seas.

Likewise, China's aggressive island-building and militarization have resulted in environmental degradation, endangering Philippine maritime ecosystems and fishing grounds. According to the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UPMSI), illegal Chinese reclamation and poaching activities in the area cost the Philippines P 33.1 billion per year, destroying fish habitats and coral reefs in the Kalayaan Islands and Panatag Shoal. Trespassing Chinese vessels unlawfully plunder Philippine maritime resources, leaving Filipino fishermen scraping the bottom of whatever remains.

Many fisherfolk families that mainly depend on fishing for food and revenue have lost their livelihoods as a result of China's escalating harassment and mistreatment of Filipino fisherfolks. Their livelihoods and food security are in danger. The economic losses brought on by decreased catch and damaged boats and other fishing equipment feed an already vicious cycle of poverty in related coastal communities.



However, Filipino fishermen are not the only ones that face harassment from China. A Chinese Coast Guard ship recently fired a water cannon at a Philippine supply boat seeking to resupply WPS frontliners stationed aboard the grounded BRP Sierra Madre at the Ayungin Shoal. Despite the fact that the shoal is fully within the Philippines' EEZ, China claims it as its own, defying a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) arbitral tribunal judgment that rejected its bogus nine-dash-nine claim in the area.

China has also asked that the Philippines to remove the grounded BRP Sierra Madre at the Ayungin Shoal. China claimed that the Philippines made a promise to pull the ship away. The Philippines, it asserted, made that pledge "several times" but "has yet to act" on it. The Marcos administration denied the existence of such an agreement, as did Senators Jinggoy Estrada and JV Ejercito, sons of former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, whose administration intentionally grounded the ship at the Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to bolster the country's sovereignty and territorial claims. Many analysts believe that China is preparing the groundwork to forcibly remove the grounded ship, which is clearly within Philippine jurisdiction.

Undoubtedly, the Duterte administration's subservient foreign policy, which largely ignored the Philippines' historical grievances and territorial claims connected to the WPS, contributed to China's assertive assertion in the region. President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy radically pivoted towards China and away from the country’s traditional allies in order to strengthen economic ties with Beijing and pursue larger Chinese investments and infrastructure projects in the Philippines. The tide seemed to have slowly turned when President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr.'s administration took a different approach to foreign relations. While Marcos stated that his foreign policy will keep the Philippines "a friend to all and an enemy to none," he publicly supported the country's arbitral ruling victory and went on to craft a foreign policy framework that seeks multilateral economic and security agreements with more allied countries such as the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, India, and Australia.

As the Philippines attempts more supply missions to the West Philippine Sea, numerous international and regional observers have remarked that China’s next actions in the region are the subject of much interest in the international community. Recently, a resupply mission arrived safely in Ayungin Shoal on August 22, 2023 despite attempts by the Chinese Coast Guard and militia attempts to block two chartered boats carrying goods for WPS frontliners stationed in BRP Sierra Madre there. The Philippines highlighted that China's response was less aggressive, with fewer and smaller vessels deployed against Philippine vessels, as opposed to the previous mission, in which China even employed water cannon to harass Philippine marine vessels. The Philippine Coast Guard stated that China is aware of the massive international outcry and has adopted a "calmer response." However, Philippine authorities warned that this could merely be part of China's public relations strategy, claiming that the country is still engaging in dangerous sea maneuvers in the area to prevent more supplies from reaching BRP Sierra Madre.

Clearly, BRP Sierra Madre, the 79-year-old tank landing ship that the United States gave us has now come to represent the peaceful but resolute resistance of the Filipino people to foreign encroachment. It also serves as an acute reminder of the precarious predicament that local Filipino fishing communities face as they valiantly defend their sovereign right to fish and explore the area's waters for resources despite ongoing harassment by a foreign invader.

Atin Ito!

We are a gathering of social movements, NGOs, fisherfolk organizations, concerned artists and citizens, Church leaders and entrepreneurs that are embarking on a visionary initiative to unify the different sectors and segments of Philippine society around the cause and situation of our WPS fisherfolk and frontliners.

We believe that by supporting our WPS fisherfolk and frontliners, we demonstrate that we care about the well-being of all Filipinos, regardless of their circumstances and geographical locations. Aiding our WPS fisherfolk and frontliners shows the underlying qualities of empathy and compassion that define us as Filipinos and as a nation, and guarantees that future generations will have access to the same maritime resources that have nourished our country for millennia. This duty alludes to our obligation as Filipino citizens to leave a legacy of abundance, ensuring that our national heritage is preserved for future Filipinos.

As a demonstration of this patriotic duty, we will launch a donation drive for the benefit of all the fisherfolk communities who are reliant to the WPS for their livelihood. The mission, comprised of social movements, church people, fisherfolk organizations, artists, youth and students and civil society groups will contribute to responding to the immediate needs of our WPS fisherfolk and other frontliners, promote solidarity and regional peace, and peacefully assert Philippine sovereignty in the face of China's military aggressiveness.

Objectives

Launch a successful donation drive in schools, churches, communities and workplaces to gather necessary resources for our West Philippine Sea fisherfolk and frontliners, and raise public awareness.

Organize cultural/artist-led events that will help build a strong and broad WPS constituency that will demonstrate the Philippines' unwavering commitment to uphold its rights through peaceful, rules-based but resolute means.


Organize a civilian supply mission to the WPS to bring necessary supplies, such as food, water, medical resources, and other essentials, in order to improve the living circumstances and operational capabilities of fisherfolk and other civilian communities in the area, as well as other WPS frontliners. This will take into account elements such as weather, vessel availability, and ideal routes.