Fishing amid territorial disputes in S. China Sea

April 11, 2016, 12:03 am TWN

CATO, Philippines -- As Asian countries jostle for territory in the South China Sea, one Filipino fisherman is taking a stand.

He has faced down Chinese coast guard rifles, and even engaged in a stone-throwing duel with the Chinese last month that shattered two windows on his outrigger.

"They'll say, 'Out, out of Scarborough,'" Renato Etac says, referring to Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcropping claimed by both the Philippines and China. He yells back, "Where is the document that shows Scarborough is Chinese property?"

At one level, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a battle of wills between American and Chinese battleships and planes. At another level, they are cat-and-mouse chases between the coast guards of several countries and foreign fishermen, and among the fishing boats themselves.

Indonesia seized a Chinese fishing boat last month and arrested eight fishermen, only to have a Chinese coast guard vessel ram the fishing boat as it was being towed, allowing it to escape.

Vietnam's coast guard chased away more than 100 Chinese boats over a two-week period, its state media reported this week, and made a rare seizure of a Chinese ship carrying 100,000 liters (26,400 gallons) of diesel oil, reportedly for sale to fishing boats in the area.

The South China Sea, a hodgepodge of overlapping territorial claims in the Pacific, is both strategically important and a vital shipping route for international trade. It may also contain valuable oil and natural gas reserves.

As tensions ratchet up, though, it is perhaps those who make a living at sea who feel it the most. Here are some stories from fishermen around the region:

Philippines: The Guardian of Scarborough Shoal

Renato Etac has had dozens of encounters with Chinese ships.

More than once, a small team of Chinese coast guardsmen on a rubber boat approached his boat and pointed their rifles at him, but he says he knew they would not fire and risk starting a war.

At other times, the Chinese will surge as if to hit his boat, but the 37-year-old fisherman uses his keen knowledge of Scarborough Shoal — where he has fished for Spanish mackerel, trevally and grouper since he was a teenager — to outmaneuver them.

Etac says he just wants to defend his livelihood in waters that used to be open to all. China took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a two-month standoff with Philippine government ships. It sits about 230 kilometers (145 miles) west of the Philippines, and 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the Chinese coast.

"It's like quarreling, like playing games," he says. "Yelling, dirty finger, everything's there. Sometimes I use expletives in different dialects and I get to laugh when I see them, because they don't understand what I'm saying."

He enjoys what he calls the territorial "debates" in the high seas, though his earnings from a weeklong fishing expedition have dropped by more than half to 3,000 pesos (US$63), because of both the Chinese disruptions and competition.

"He's like the guardian of Scarborough, sir," said Greggy Etac, a relative and a fellow fisherman. "I used to sail with him, but now, I'm scared."

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In this March 26 photo, fishing boats are docked at Tho Quang port, Danang, Vietnam. Fishermen from around the South China Sea tell stories of contending with bandits and coast guards. As tensions ratchet up, it is perhaps those who make a living at sea who feel it the most. (AP)

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