How Chinese fishermen became pawns in Asia's maritime great game

The Philippines accuses the detained fishermen of poaching endangered turtles in its waters. China says Manila has no jurisdiction to try them and has tried to undermine their trial. 

Bullit Marquez/AP
Protesters dressed as green sea turtles picket the Chinese Consulate in Manila on Friday, May 16, 2014 to protest the recent poaching by China. Charges were filed in May against a crew of Chinese fishermen for poaching more than 500 marine turtles at the Philippine-claimed Half Moon Shoal off the South China Sea.

This is the human face of China’s increasingly intransigent claim to most of the South China Sea: Chen Yiquan, a ship captain wearing a yellow T-shirt and blue cotton shorts, sitting dejectedly in a low-slung concrete jail outside this ramshackle provincial port.

Two months after being arrested on the open seas west of here for poaching endangered sea-turtles, Chinese fishing Capt. Chen and his crew are stuck in legal limbo, with no trial date in sight. If found guilty, they could face 20-year jail sentences. For now, they are helpless pawns in a growing territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.

Their case casts unusual light on the way the Chinese government is sometimes able to use its growing diplomatic and economic weight in Southeast Asia to shape individual and official behavior in Beijing’s favor, as it seeks to make China the “indispensable power” in the region. And that power does not take kindly to judicial oversight from other countries that cross its path. 

Chen and his eight colleagues cannot be tried without a defense lawyer. No public defender can represent them without a “certificate of indigence” from the Chinese embassy in Manila on behalf of its citizens. And the embassy has so far refused to issue that document.

Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua would not explain why. But Chinese officials have said the Philippines court has no right to try the fishermen since they were detained in what Beijing considers to be Chinese territorial waters, 60 miles off the Philippines coast and some 650 miles from the nearest Chinese land.

The case is “illegal and invalid,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on May 9, the day the men were first questioned by a prosecutor. “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters including the Banyue reef,” she added, using the Chinese names for the Spratly Islands and Half Moon Shoal, where the fishermen were captured.

Impeded trial 

And that leaves Capt. Chen washed up on a foreign shore with no place to go. “The embassy does not want to be involved in the judicial process,” says Chen, speaking at the jail. “They have not helped us at all.”

The fishermen need a Chinese-speaking interpreter before a trial can start. But when Chinese consul Duan Qiang “told the fishermen not to cooperate with us,” says provincial prosecutor Allen Rodriguez, it became clear that Beijing was seeking to impede the case.

Since then, all the ethnic Chinese Filipinos in Puerto Princesa who speak Mandarin have declined to act as court interpreters, delaying the start of court proceedings.

“I have tried the Chinese school” where the teachers are mainland Chinese, “the university, the tourist agencies and I still haven’t found anyone willing to interpret” for the fishermen, says one official asked to help locate a suitable person. “It is very difficult."

Fear of retribution 

Officials did find a Chinese-speaking local, Andrew Lim, to interpret at the fishermen's first interrogation. But he's refusing to do so again for fear of retribution from the Chinese government.

“We are businessmen,” explains Arjennel Lim, the interpreter's brother, whose family runs a grocery store. “We go to China sometimes and we need visas. What if the Chinese government thought that we were with the Filipinos who are detaining their citizens?

“We want to help the Philippines government but this case is very sensitive,” he adds. “We have to think twice.”

China’s refusal to allow the judicial process to run its course is new, according to Mr. Rodriguez, the prosecutor. “This is the first time they are stonewalling on a case,” he says. “In the past they have been very cordial and cooperative.” A local Chinese Filipino businessman, Felix Lao, has been happy to act as interpreter in about two dozen cases involving Chinese fishermen, he adds.

This time Mr. Lao says he is “too busy” to do the job and is also fearful that his Filipino neighbors and customers might resent him for coming to the assistance of the poachers.

Territorial overlaps

Beijing’s new hard line appears to match recent Chinese assertiveness elsewhere in the South China Sea, where China’s territorial claims overlap with those of its neighbors. The Vietnamese government has protested strongly against the installation of a Chinese oil-drilling rig in waters it says belong to Hanoi.

Last week China said it arrested six Vietnamese fishermen that were in Chinese territorial waters off Hainan Island. Vietnam said that the arrest on July 3 occurred in disputed waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, south of Hainan.

For the Philippines the economic stakes are high: China is its third-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in 2013 worth $16.4 billion. And, as China's ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, noted last week, China's outward investment has so far largely bypassed it. That represents an opportunity – and an implicit threat, if China doesn't get its way in maritime disputes.

Half Moon Shoal

The latest flare-up in the increasingly noisy dispute between Beijing and Manila began around 9 a.m. on May 6. A team from the Philippines police elite Special Boat Unit intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel, the Qiong Qionghai 09063, just off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratlys, 60 miles west of Palawan Island.

Boarding the boat, they found 489 sea turtles – “critically endangered species” under Philippines law – of which only 108 were still alive according to the inventory taken by the police. The rest had been preserved in formalin and stuffed for decorative purposes, or dismembered.

Li Xianghui, a crew member released in mid-May because he was under 18, later told the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua after his return home that the crew had bartered food and water for “dozens” of turtles from Vietnamese fishermen they met at the shoal, but claimed that his boat was only fishing for ornamental fish.

Illicit rendezvous

Philippines police believe that ship captain Chen was indeed buying turtles from local fishermen; they had followed a Filipino boat to its rendezvous with the Qiongqiong Hai 09063 on a tipoff and arrested five Filipinos in the operation. But no nets or other fishing gear was found on board the Chinese boat, according to the inventory, while a large drum of formalin was seized, suggesting that Chen was illegally trading in turtles.

His confiscated boat, a 60-foot wide-beamed wooden junk with a flattened prow painted red, now lies tied up to the Special Boat Unit’s wharf near Puerto Princesa; the whole turtles that were found aboard have been removed and buried, but one chest freezer in the galley is still full of turtle breast plates and flippers, while another is packed with frozen slabs of turtle meat in plastic bags.

“The Chinese fishermen were not engaged in actual fishing activities,” says prosecutor Rodriguez, “but the law prohibits possession of rare, threatened or endangered species” as well as poaching in Filipino waters.

Reckless move

China has reacted angrily to the arrest and arraignment of the nine fishermen; a threatening Xinhua commentary called it “a premeditated plot to provoke Beijing” and a “reckless move. All parties should also be reminded that ignorance of China’s resolve to defend its sovereign land will induce consequences too severe for certain countries to bear.”

In April, the Philippines pushed back by signing a new defense agreement with the US, its longtime military ally. The previous month, Manila filed a case with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, asking it to arbitrate on its maritime dispute with China. Beijing has said it would refuse to take part in any arbitration.

Meanwhile, in the Palawan provincial jail, the imprisoned Chinese fishermen “just sleep and eat and sit around,” says Chen, as they wait for their fate to be decided.

Rodriguez says he too is patient. “The maximum penalty for the charges they face is 20 years,” he says. “If this case hibernates, then they will be free in 20 years.” 

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