SUBIC, Zambales – On his first voyage as captain, Joel Banila was more worried about being battered by Chinese Coast Guard ships than he was about the impending storm on the horizon in the South China Sea.
His was one of the first boats to gamble on the big catches on offer in and around the disputed Scarborough or Panatag Shoal since President Duterte made surprise overtures towards China, which sees the area as its sovereign territory.
For four years, Chinese ships have blockaded the tranquil lagoon rich in fish stocks and forced fishermen from the Philippines to travel further for smaller catches, reflecting tensions in the South China Sea where several countries have overlapping claims.
Frosty relations between China and the Philippines have improved markedly, however, as Duterte shifts away from traditional ally the United States and closer to Beijing, and some fishermen have decided to take a calculated risk.
“I felt a bit nervous because it was my first time serving as captain,” 32-year-old Banila told Reuters, a day after making the 10-hour, 124-mile journey back to the shores of the northwest Philippines.
“We heard what happened before, that they (Chinese ships) ram the boats, so I was moving slowly around the shoal but nothing happened.”
There has been considerable confusion at sea since Duterte’s diplomatic shift, with China’s foreign ministry saying this week that the situation at Scarborough Shoal “has not changed and will not change.” (Reuters)