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Our fishing trip you told me about. You know “fishing trip” was a code word, right, for going to the Scarborough Shoal? The Scarborough Shoal? The disputed territory the Chinese Coast Guard is patrolling? Yeah, that Scarborough Shoal.
Ok. It’s like two or three hours there and back, right? Ok, it’s 19 hours. 19 hours round trip‽ Each way. Ok. Where’s our yacht? So instead of the nice, relaxing fishing trip I thought we’d be going on, we’re going on a 120-mile journey to the Scarborough Shoal in the middle of the South China Sea. That’s the center of a hotly contested territorial dispute between The Philippines and China.
So, how do we get there? Why, we’re hitching a ride on a Filipino fishing boat. We’re going to be traveling in style.
The Bubhoy fishing boat. Joining the China Uncensored team are three members of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the biggest newspaper in the Philippines. Little do they know what they’re getting themselves into. Yar! Shiver me timbers! Row faster, ya lazy dog!
Aye, Captain! Are you guys going to do this the entire trip? Argh, we be seamen, you wouldn’t understand, you landlubber. Landlubber! We’ve done several episodes on the South China Sea, but being here, knowing the Chinese coast guard could be just over the horizon, feels a little different.
I’m sure we’ll be fine, but just in case… Hey guys! Where can I get a life vest? Oh, I don’t think there are any left, Chris. What? Well, I guess the Filipino fishermen don’t wear any and they’re all right.
Oh, you didn’t tell him about the… Oh, well, I mean, it was back in March, so… Woah, wait, wait. What happened? I mean, this ship got rammed by the Chinese Coast Guard. This ship got rammed by the Chinese Coast Guard‽ Yeah. Yeah.
Oh. Uh, I think I’m gonna go talk to the captain. Could you tell me more about the Chinese Coast Guard ramming this boat? How they drove into it? I’m afraid.
Because my son was driving this boat when they hit this boat. So what was the situation like back in March with the fishermen? Based on accounts of the fishermen, we were being driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard vessels when they tried to get closer to the Shoal. Some of the boats were rammed by the Chinese Coast Guard vessels, like this boat we’re on right now. And the Coast Guard— the Chinese Coast Guard— even used water cannons to drive away Filipino fishermen. Which also happened to this boat, too?
Yes, exactly. Not exactly reassuring. But despite the dangers, Filipino fishermen keep trying to come back.
Not only can they catch far more fish near the shallow waters of the Scarborough Shoal, the lagoon inside is also a safe haven during dangerous storms. Except when the Chinese Coast Guard blocks you. For four years.
But a few weeks ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Now there are reports the Chinese Coast Guard are letting some Filipino fishing boats at least go close to the Shoal. So we’re off to see just how close.
Well, it’s dawn in the South China Sea. The fishermen are taking a moment to see if they can catch some fish, and then we’ll head off the Scarborough Shoal, where we’ll be holding a fan meet-up with the Coast Guard. The fishermen we spoke to have different opinions about the Scarborough Shoal. Some of them would be happy to be able to fish there again. Others are concerned that President Duterte may have weakened the Philippines’ claims to the area.
But none of them want the Chinese Coast Guard hanging around. So Matt, it’s been about 19 hours now. We should be seeing the Shoal pretty soon, right? I just talked to the captain. It’s going to be 27 hours. That’s—cool.
Captain’s log: It feels like we’ve been on this boat forever. I think I may be coming down with something. Shelley! Shelley!
Is this scurvy? We’ve only been on this boat for like 24 hours. But is it scurvy? Captain’s log: hour 24.5. They’re all plotting against me.
Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck? The best Batman is LEGO Batman. Captain’s log: hour 24.6.
I am alone. I have only one true friend. It’s just you and me now, Milson! Chris, Chris!
We’re almost at the Shoal. Oh, great. Let’s go. 11 miles out from the Shoal. The captain tells us that usually here, the Chinese Coast Guard would already be forcing us back.
No sign of them yet. Well, we are approaching the Scarborough Shoal, which means we are within China’s Nine-Dash Line. That’s the boundary of what they claim is Chinese territory. And we’ve spotted around nine Chinese Coast Guard vessels. You can maybe make them out just over that way. So wish us luck; we have no idea what’s going to happen.
It’s…a little more intimidating than I imagined. We are dwarfed by some of the larger Chinese vessels, including the two guarding the lagoon entrance. Our captain is too nervous to approach them, so we’re going around the side in small boats to avoid being intercepted.
Well, we finally made it to the Scarborough Shoal. It used to be that Filipino, Malaysian, and Vietnamese fishermen would all come and fish here at the same time. They would even meet together and eat on the Shoal. But in 2012, China asserted its claim to the region and all that stopped.
Well, as you can see, it’s high tide at the Shoal, so you can’t see much of it. But as far as I’m concerned, this territorial dispute is over. Oh.
It’s solid rock. Wait, what’s that, Shelley? It’s coral! Oh. Sailing to the Scarborough Shoal has definitely made this territorial dispute more real for me.
Especially how it affects the lives of these ordinary fishermen caught up in circumstances beyond their control. For now, the situation seems to be as calm as the tranquil waters around the shoal. But out here on the open ocean, you never know what storms could be gathering just beyond the horizon. And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Man, that was the coolest thing we’ve ever done.
I can’t wait to get back to Manila and have some lumpia. You know it’s another 27 hours back, right?