Adventure, regret, anger: one Global Times reporter’s epic South China Sea journeyPosted: June 14, 2012
After a three-week tour of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s special South Sea correspondent Cheng Gang 程刚, an experienced war journalist, filed a lengthy feature story that ran in the paper’s June 1 edition. It was titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.
It was really good reading, with loads of interesting detail, so i’ve done a summary translation. The photos are inserted to illustrate the places Cheng is talking about — i’ve attempted to link to the source wherever i have it on file, but they are taken from all over the internet, including Google images, Google maps, Panoramio and Vietnamese social networking sites, so if one belongs to you please don’t hesitate to demand a credit.
Cheng’s piece starts by describing how May is the best time to be sailing on the South Sea, because the northeast wind has blown out but the southwest monsoon and associated typhoons haven’t yet arrived. Seabirds abound and dolphins follow the boat through the glassy blue waters. “The beauty of each day is far beyond picture scrolls,” Cheng writes, “but as a Chinese person who pays attention to the South China Sea issue, travelling with Chinese law enforcement boats on patrols through the Paracels, Spratlys and Zhongsha [ie. Scarborough Shoal and the Macclesfield Bank], this Huanqiu Shibao reporter could hardly think about the intoxicating views; on the contrary, it was more regret and unease.”
At Fiery Cross Reef 永暑礁, site of the PRC’s biggest Spratly installation [and a UN-sponsored meteorological station] reporter Cheng witnesses “a certain country’s” fishermen blatantly refusing to obey instructions to desist in their fishing activities, until finally a duty vessel was sent out and they resentfully left. “Fiery Cross Reef is Mainland China’s biggest reef fort 礁堡 in the Spratlys, and the place where its garrisons are the strongest. If it’s like this at Fiery Cross Reef, one can imagine how the situation in other areas is even more turbulent.”
Next, Cheng reports comments from Chinese fishermen in the Paracel Islands accusing Vietnamese intruders of using destructive fishing methods like dynamiting 炸鱼, electrocution 电鱼 and even poisoning 毒鱼. “Chinese fishermen who live in the Paracels get extremely angry when this topic is raised, telling the Huanqiu Shibao that the Vietnamese get government assistance to go to the Paracels, as well as fuel subsidies, and rewards if they bring fish back.” The journalist reports the Chinese fishermen saying that if they are detained by the Chinese authorities the Vietnamese government pays their fines, reimburses all their expenses, and offers other rewards (as the feature piece translated here yesterday indicated, China deploys similar tactics). He concludes the section with a description of Vietnamese fishing boats at Langhua Reef 浪花礁, banded together, which “viewed at night from afar look like a small city”.
Returning back to the Spratlys, Cheng writes that other countries are increasing the areas they are patrolling from their occupied features, reducing the area available for Chinese fishing. Qionghai 03688 琼·琼海03688 captain Wang Weimin 王维民 shows the journalist a gunshot scar inflicted by Vietnamese soldiers over a decade ago. That time, Wang said, one of his boatmates was beaten to death.
Because of this, Chinese fishermen try to stick to Chinese-controlled atolls and unoccupied atolls. Wang Weimin tells the journalist that in the past they could fish a certain distance from Vietnam-occupied features, but now if they come anywhere near, Vietnam sends boats out to fire warning shots and drive them away.
Cheng, the reporter, reports feeling intense pride and respect when he sees the PRC flag fluttering on Chigua Reef 赤瓜礁 (aka Johnson South Reef), at the southern end of the Union Banks 九章群礁. (The PRC took this feature from the Philippines in the 1988 Spratly skirmish.)
This reporter observed that Chigua Reef is hemmed in by Vietnamese-occupied features. With the naked eye one can see the outlines of [Vietnamese-occupied] Landsdown Reef 琼礁 and Collins Reef 鬼喊礁 [aka Johnson North Reef], and beyond them the vague outline of a shore. With a telephoto lens one can see lush vegetation and neatly laid-out buildings. That is the fourth-largest Spratly Island, Sin Cowe Island 景宏岛, the site of Vietnam’s second command section. Fortunately, off Chigua Reef a corvette from the PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet was on guard. The mighty gunboat makes one feel much safer.
The first picture below a similar sight to the one the reporter describes. Perhaps a military expert could tell us the nationality of the warship in the background?
The boat Cheng is riding on then heads towards China’s so-called Zhongsha Archipelago 中沙群岛 (he doesn’t mention that the only part of this that’s above the water is the rock on Scarborough Shoal, isolated for several hundred kilometres on all sides). On the way, the PRC ship passes within 1 nautical mile of Taiwan-occupied Taiping island. The reporter makes a point of the fact that their boat is allowed to pass unmolested:
After all we are all Chinese, and on the island there was no reaction to our boat. Using the camera’s telephoto lens the reporter could see people on duty in the observation tower silently observing our boat.
As they pass by more luxuriant Vietnamese-occupied islands and see the incessant construction activity going on, the lament that the journalist recalls constantly hearing is: “How are all the good places being occupied by other countries?”
The conditions on PRC-occupied reefs have gotten better, he writes, with drinking water from desalination, internet, mobile phone services and many TV channels, but the fortresses haven’t substantially changed since the 1990s. In contrast, Vietnam’s islands are always changing. “It is said that countries like Vietnam have an alternating support system in which different provinces take on responsibility for construction on individual islands,” Cheng writes.
Next, Cheng turns to the “great contribution that Chinese fisherfolk have made to breaking Vietnam and the Philippines’ actual control” of the Spratly waters:
It is said that, “Every Chinese fishing boat that appears in the Spratlys is a five-starred red flag.” Forty-nine-year-old Chen Yiping 陈奕平 has been fishing in the South Sea for nearly 30 years. Today, he is the owner and captain of Qionghai 03889 琼·琼海03889. He has already taken to the sea three times since Spring Festival: “Scarborough Shoal, Reed Bank 礼乐滩, I’ve been to all of them!” This fisherman from Tanmen town, Qionghai City, is carrying on his family’s ancestral occupation, fishing in the waters of the Zhongsha, Pratas 东沙, Paracels and Spratlys. But, he says, in the past 15 years this has been extremely difficult, the main reason being the damage and disasters inflicted by neighbouring countries.
In late 1997 and early 1998 Captain Chen had his boat confiscated and spent 5 months in jail in Manila. The journalist describes how his eyes “flash with rage” at the memory of refusing to sign a confession of fishing outside Chinese waters. Chen tells the reporter that numerous fisherfolk from Tanmen have spent 10 years in a foreign jail for the same. “Captain Chen says ruefully, China is determined not to fire the first shot, but no-one knows how many first shots these countries who are occupying our islands and reefs have fired!”
Reporter Cheng’s piece then recounts a couple of anecdotes from the recent standoff at Scarborough Shoal. He describes the lagoon as being full of submerged rocks and reefs, making it “very difficult for bigger boats to navigate”. As such, he found two CMS boats and two FLEC boats bobbing on the sea outside the lagoon’s narrow entrance. Nearby there was a Philippines Coastguard patrol boat, upon which Cheng “could see people hiding and peeping out from the bridge”.
A Chinese sailor points to a boat inside the lagoon and says it’s a Philippines aquatic resources investigation ship [MCS 3006, or was it MCS 3001?], which has taken advantage of its light tonnage to safely go inside. “Because they are too large, our country’s government boats could not enter, but fortunately China has now sent a smaller government boat to take charge within the lagoon,” writes Cheng.
Most of the time China and the Philippines were just deadlocked, but from time to time the Philippines would try little tricks. This reporter witnessed two Philippines fishing boats attempt to break into the lagoon, whereupon three Chinese government boats immediately lined up into a layered blockade formation to smash their plot.
Finally, reporter Cheng notes that all boats will have to leave Scarborough Shoal soon due to the coming typhoon season, and that when the time comes to return, Chinese boats will be at a disadvantage because they have more than 500 nm to travel compared to the Philippines’ 100+ nm. The piece concludes with a warning about the Philippines’ sneaky tricks of the past, such as deliberately grounding old ships to create strongholds on unoccupied reefs, including Scarborough Shoal.
Analysts say the chances of the Philippines trying this again are increasing. According to Chinese maritime law enforcement staff on the boat, China needs to plan speedy responses in advance or else it will be difficult for Chinese boats to enter the atoll. As one Chinese fisherman anxiously told this reporter, if the Philippines cannot be stopped on the Scarborough Shoal issue this time, then other countries bordering on the South Sea will become even more savage.
All of this first-hand information appears to be exclusive to the Huanqiu Shibao, so i think Cheng has done a great job from a reporting perspective. That is of course if we leave aside the ideal of “objectivity”, which is basically impossible within the constraints of the Chinese media because one cannot question the fairness or legitimacy of the PRC’s claims.
However, propaganda constraints probably wouldn’t have come into play, judging by Cheng Gang’s latest piece, ‘China has no way to compromise in the South China Sea, and need not be polite‘. In it, Cheng positively froths with anger over the actions of the PRC’s co-claimants, telling readers that they “have done and continue to do what they shouldn’t, and have got and continue to get what they shouldn’t”, in the face of China’s “deep kindness and complete sincerity”.
Cheng finishes that piece by suggesting that the “Mischief Reef method” be applied on Scarborough Shoal. But how China is supposed to sneak in and construct a reef-fort there without the Philippines or anyone else finding out is well and truly beyond me.