By Daniel Llanto

The group called Global Initiative against Transnational Crime (GITC) ranked China as the worst illegal fishing offender in the world, while Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Gen. Gilbert Gapay acknowledged an alarming increase in Chinese fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

Fishing vessels from China have been noted to be manned by Chinese Coast Guard personnel, or have them on board as backup, which often harass Filipino fishermen who consider the West Philippine Sea their traditional fishing ground.

On suggestion that the Philippine Coast Guard give Chinese fishermen a dose of their own medicine by also hosing them with water cannons, Gapay said the AFP has its own water cannons and is ready to fire water cannons at foreign vessels encroaching into Philippine waters, but “would rather use peaceful” actions.

GITC ranked China the world’s worst Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing offender for failing to comply with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As the country with the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet, GITC said China has a special responsibility to follow international rules and norms, and to live up to its UNCLOS commitments.

According to the Singapore-based Pew Charitable Trusts, Chinese ports are also ranked as the most likely to process IUU-caught fish.

In an online press briefing, the Asia-Pacific Media Hub of the US State Department said China is ranked as the worst IUU fishing offender in the Pacific, plundering the basic livelihood resources of the countries in the region and threatening their stability, food security and economic development and the basic international order.

On the increased Chinese vessels in West Philippine Sea, Gapay attributed this to the AFP’s improved capability to monitor Philippine waters, suggesting that nothing there is new.

“Dati marami na talaga, pero wala tayong capability na mag-monitor. Ngayon meron na tayong monitoring capability, at yun nga, nakita na natin kung gaano kalawak ang operasyon ng Chinese,” Gapay said.

On the possible use of water cannons to drive the foreign vessels, Gapay said: “Ready tayo dun, mayroon tayong mga water cannons din, but wala pa naman tayong insidente na ganoon.”

Some claimants to the South China Sea like China, Taiwan, and Vietnam have, in recent years, turned to use water cannons against encroaching vessels.

In February 2014, the Philippines protested China’s use of water cannons against Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal off Zambales.

Gapay said that while the AFP is ready to drive away vessels with such a method, it still abides by rules-based approaches, initially by sending challenges to the encroaching vessel, then filing a diplomatic protest.

“‘Yung iba na talagang hindi sumusunod, we file diplomatic protest against them through the Department of Foreign Affairs.”

The AFP chief made the remarks as he confirmed that more Chinese vessels were monitored to have intruded into Philippine waters even as the country struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Kalimitan diyan ‘yung mga fishing vessels nila then nandyan na rin yung kanilang maritime exploration and research vessels, and these are backed by warships at yung coast guard ng Chinese armed forces,” he said.

On December 4, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (AMTI-CSIS) published a report saying the Chinese Coast Guard patrolled Scarborough (Panatag) and Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal this year as frequently as it did before the pandemic.

Also frequented by the Chinese Coast Guard were Vanguard Bank and Luconia Shoal, which are nearer to Vietnam and Malaysia, respectively.

On December 2, the AFP Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) detailed how it challenged the Chinese research vessel Jiageng, which had strayed into waters near Ilocos Norte and Cagayan in mid-September.

According to Nolcom, the foreign ship was monitored with the help of aerial surveillance, the 11 littoral monitoring stations in northern islands, and information from “maritime militia.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied all these, saying China has “zero tolerance” for violations of relevant laws and regulations committed by their fishing vessels.