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In a disputed reef, Philippines sees face of Chinese domination

Scarborough Shoal, a mecca for fishermen, is claimed by both countries, and the fight over it and other territory in the South China Sea threatens to entangle the U.S.

May 14, 2013|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

Luz Farones Macario, whose husband runs one of the biggest fishing fleets in Masinloc, with three large boats, now sells frozen chicken legs, ham and sausage.

"All of these aisles were full of fish. Now, no more," she said. "Why are the Chinese being so selfish when there is so much fish in the sea?"

According to Filipinos, the generations of fishing at the shoal were interrupted only when the reef was used as a firing range. It is more than 500 miles from the southern tip of China's southernmost island, Hainan.

Beijing, however, has produced records showing that the territory was explored and charted as far back as 1279 by the 13th century astronomer Guo Shoujing, who surveyed the region for the emperor Kublai Khan.

China has produced a U-shaped map that gives it sovereignty over almost all the South China Sea up to the borders of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Shen Dingli, an international relations expert at Shanghai's Fudan University, says the Philippines did not actively assert its claim to the shoal until 1992.

"For a long time, China has claimed all rocks in the entire South China Sea," Shen said, speaking at an international conference last week in Seoul. "Prior to 1992, the Philippines made no official disagreement, so we view it as a virtual admission of China's claim."

The Chinese have also denied using force, saying the ships it dispatches belong only to China Marine Surveillance and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, civilian agencies that are not supposed to carry weapons. Photographs in Chinese state media, however, clearly show some of the marine surveillance ships with guns mounted on their decks.

Experts in maritime law say part of the issue is that China is a much older country than its neighbors, with a more meticulous system of record-keeping.

"The Philippines didn't even have a central government until Spanish colonial times," said Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "The local Malay people didn't keep records the way the Chinese did.

"But the fact that you have records doesn't extinguish the rights of the native people," Thayer said.

The name Scarborough comes from a boat that was shipwrecked there in 1784. Filipinos also call it the Bajo de Masinloc — a name that dates to Spanish colonial times — while the Chinese have named it Huangyan, or "Yellow Rock."

By many accounts, the reef was a favorite fishing spot for numerous groups for years, and relations were friendly enough that fishermen often bartered goods — Chinese liquor and instant noodles for Philippine mangoes and papaya.

The current spat dates to April 11, 2012, when Chinese fishermen were accused of poaching giant clams and sharks, protected species. The Philippines sent a naval ship to arrest the Chinese fishermen, who in turn radioed for help from China Marine Surveillance.

After a two-month standoff, a deal was brokered by the United States for both sides to withdraw from the shoal.

The Chinese never left.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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