CATO: Filipino fisherman Mariel Villamonte had spent years plying the turquoise waters of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea for snapper and grouper – until a Chinese coast guard vessel water cannoned his boat.
That was in 2012, around the time China snatched control of the small ring of reefs from the Philippines, and he has not dared go back.
“Their ships are made of steel, ours are made of wood,” said Villamonte, now 31, recalling how two Chinese vessels chased his outrigger before blasting it with high pressure water.
The fishing ground, tapped by generations of Filipinos, is one of many potential flashpoints for military conflict over the South China Sea.
China and Taiwan both claim sovereignty over almost the entire sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims to parts of it.
Trillions of dollars worth of shipborne trade passes through the waterway annually and naval vessels from the United States and Western allies sail through it regularly.
Of all the claimants, China has in recent years forced its stance most aggressively.
Hundreds of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels prowl the waters, swarming reefs, harassing and attacking fishing and other boats, and interfering in oil and gas exploration, and scientific research.
Analysts say Beijing’s aim is regional supremacy and control over all activity in the waters – and it is using its might to bully smaller rivals into submission.
“They really envision themselves to be the centre of this region, economically, politically and militarily,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“What they want is that eventually the weaker nations simply give up and leave them there just to avoid a problem.”
China often invokes the so-called nine-dash line, a vague delineation based on maps from the 1940s, to justify its claims over the South China Sea.
The Philippines brought a case before an international court disputing China’s stance. The tribunal ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s claims have no legal basis.
China has since ignored the ruling, and tensions with the Philippines eased after former president Rodrigo Duterte set aside his country’s legal victory and courted Chinese businesses instead.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took over from Duterte in June this year, has pledged to uphold the court decision and insisted he would not let China trample on Manila’s maritime rights.
But in the decade under President Xi Jinping, who is expected to secure a record third consecutive term in office this month, China has dramatically expanded its presence in the sea.
Xi’s desire for control of the waters is not about fish or fossil fuels, said Greg Poling, director of the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).
His main objectives are realizing the “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation – Xi’s vision of restoring the country to perceived past glory – and securing his political legitimacy.
Poling said generations of Chinese leaders had made increasingly “absurd” claims to the sea, leaving Xi with no choice but to “assert claims to everything”.
Satellite images published by AMTI show China’s land reclamation efforts in the waters have vastly outstripped those of all other claimants combined.
Since 2013, it has ripped up roughly 6,000 hectares of reef to create about 1,300 hectares of new land for artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, said Poling.
The militarised islands – complete with runways, ports, and radar systems – enable Chinese vessels to patrol as far south as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Apart from destroying fish breeding grounds and smothering marine life with sediment, experts say Beijing’s actions contravene international law.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China helped negotiate, countries have exclusive rights to natural resources within about 200 nautical miles of their shore.
China’s claims extend as far as a thousand nautical miles, which Poling said was “wildly inconsistent” with the law.
“The rules that protected China as a developing coastal state now seem like an unfair constraint on a China that believes that it should be able to impose its will on its neighbours,” he said.