The “boro,” as Filipino fishermen call it, is back. And hundreds of them have happily returned to their old, rich fishing grounds, coming home with their outrigger boats groaning with the weight of their bountiful catch.
“Boro” is what the subsistence fishermen from Bataan to Ilocos call Scarborough Shoal, also known by its local names of Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag. This is the outcrop of rock surrounding a shallow lagoon more than 200 kilometers from the coast of Luzon to the west, where all manner of fish spawn, live and easily get caught.
It is also the controversial speck of high-tide rock that was suddenly taken over by Chinese ships in 2012. Scarborough was the scene of the lowest point in recent Manila-Beijing relations, when a Philippine Navy ship was forced to turn back after nearly engaging with much bigger and better-armed Chinese vessels in a lopsided maritime battle, with no American backup in sight.
The return of Filipino fishermen to Scarborough also signals the thawing of our frozen relations with the Chinese. And the best part is, there isn’t even any bilateral agreement that covers the return of the fishermen; the Chinese just left the “boro” after President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing, the fishermen simply returned without fear of being caught in the steel nets at the mouth of the lagoon or attacks by water cannon mounted on Chinese ships.
But, of course, there’s the ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which declared that all fishermen who have traditionally and without interference plied their trade at Scarborough must be allowed to do so. Sadly, with the Chinese refusing to budge from the shoal, there was no way to enforce the arbitral ruling, short of war—something that only the keyboard warriors of the previous administration considered a real option.
Duterte’s policy of rapprochement with Beijing has immediately borne fruit with the lifting of the Chinese’s Scarborough “blockade.” And everyone who isn’t still blinded by the warlike, pro-American propaganda (as espoused by the Yellow loyalists of former President Noynoy Aquino) should understand the joy and relief now being experienced by the fishermen from the western coastal communities of Luzon.
Think about it: For four years, our fishermen could not even approach the “boro” because the government in Manila thought it had to act as the spearpoint in America’s supposed imminent war with China over the sea lanes to our west. No one even thought about their plight, even if they were the ones who bore the brunt of the de facto blockade.
Now the Filipino fishermen, as before, can freely go into the lagoon and fish to their heart’s content. What’s not to like?
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To Filipinos, Scarborough Shoal should also represent the second time in recent years that our supposed main defense partner, the United States, did not live up to its end of the mutual-security bargain in the South China Sea. The first time the US failed to come to our aid was in 1997, when the Chinese suddenly seized Mischief Reef, which we call Panganiban Reef, 250 kilometers due west of the coast of Palawan.
Since 2014, China has built permanent structures on Panganiban, including an airfield that a commercial Chinese airliner has already visited. Again, as in Scarborough, the US steered clear of the brewing dispute over the seizure of Panganiban, which various administrations since the time of Cory Aquino have vehemently protested.
If the US truly has our back, as it keeps saying, why has it twice not uttered a word about the Chinese incursions in territory that the Philippines has long claimed? Why did Washington push for rotational basing of its troops through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement to secure forward-deployment positions against Chinese aggression if it really didn’t have the Philippines’ protection in mind?
The answers to these questions are really simple: The US will not fight China over Filipino territorial claims because such a war is not in the US’ interest.
While pro-Washington Filipinos have always believed that the Americans will come to our aid, that will only happen if coming to our aid is in their best interest. And as far as China’s muscle-flexing is concerned, the US has repeatedly made it clear that its interest lies in securing the $5 trillion in annual seaborne cargo that passes over the South China Sea.
And when it comes to China, our supposed special status with the US is about as important as our territorial integrity is, to the Americans. Because of so many reasons, including trillions of dollars in American debt paper held by the Chinese, the US will not go to war with Beijing simply because the Philippines thinks it should.
The posturing between the two powers—one established, the other emerging—goes way beyond us. Philippine pride notwithstanding, we are just a pawn in this big chess game between China and the US.
As for us, unless we start thinking like an independent country with our own self-interest to pursue, we will always remain a pawn. We need to start doing what’s best for us and not worry about pleasing any other country first.
Despite the incessant carping of his critics, Duterte has shown us the way forward. We should pursue a policy that is in our best interest, as well, like working for the return of our fishermen to Scarborough Shoal.