MASINLOC, Philippines (Reuters) - For decades, fishermen along the northwestern Philippine coast treated the teeming fishing grounds of the Scarborough Shoal as their backyard, less than a day’s boat ride away.
Now, they see it as a foreign country.
“I lost my livelihood when we lost the Scarborough Shoal to the Chinese,” said Mario Forones, a 53-year-old who owns three fishing boats that worked the reef for about a dozen years before armed Chinese vessels arrived in force last April.
Reuters interviews with fishermen in two coastal Philippine towns - some of whom tried to fish the shoal as recently as this month - show how the Philippines has effectively ceded sovereignty of the reef about 124 nautical miles off its coast after a naval stand-off last year.
China’s consolidation and expansion of its grip on the disputed South China Sea looms over a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders in the tiny kingdom of Brunei this week as they try to kickstart stalled efforts to ease one of Asia’s biggest security flashpoints.
Beijing claims almost the entire sea as its territory based on historical records, setting it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts. Except for China and Taiwan, all the claimants are members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Diplomats hope leaders at the two-day ASEAN summit starting on Wednesday can put aside bitter differences that emerged last year and pave the way for China to join a proposed dispute-management mechanism.
But the fishermen’s accounts vividly show how China’s expanding, assertive naval reach could be overtaking diplomatic efforts to ease a crisis whose stakes have risen with the U.S. military’s “pivot” to refocus its forces on Asia.
In rare first-hand descriptions of the situation at the remote outcrop claimed by both China and the Philippines, the men described being chased off aggressively by large, fast-moving, white Chinese ships armed with guns and rockets. In recent months, they said the Chinese vessels had laid down thick undersea ropes to keep fishing boats out.
“I don’t know the specifics of the situation,” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when asked by Reuters to comment on the fishermen’s accounts. “But as you know, the Scarborough Shoal is indisputably part of China’s territory, and China will ensure that its sovereignty over this area is not being violated.”
The 10-member ASEAN aims to agree a legally binding Code of Conduct to manage maritime conduct in disputed areas, but prospects for quick progress appear dim.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told Reuters in an interview that the summit would mostly be about “making sure that things do not regress”.
Even if they agree, China has said it will only join talks when the time is “ripe” and that countries should first build trust by observing a weaker Declaration of Conduct (DOC) signed in 2002, which has so far failed to dampen tensions.
Natalegawa accused China of “flouting” the commitment in that agreement to exercise “maximum restraint”.
“You are seeing a number of unilateral steps that China has taken that is clearly not in line with the spirit of the DOC,” he said in Jakarta.
China says diplomatic efforts were set back by U.S. ally the Philippines’ request in January for a United Nations tribunal to order a halt to Beijing’s activities, such as those at Scarborough Shoal, that it said violated its sovereignty.
“Nothing has changed from the Chinese perspective,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “The fact that the Philippines has submitted its claims to the U.N. gives China another pretext not to discuss the Code of Conduct.”
As monsoon weather eases and China imposes a unilateral annual fishing ban that has stoked tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines, tensions are likely to grow in coming months.
China, which has said it will hold 40 naval exercises in the South China Sea this year, further antagonized Vietnam this month by saying it would allow Chinese tourists to visit the disputed Paracel islands for “sightseeing” trips. Two weeks earlier Hanoi accused Chinese ships of opening fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat, a charge that Beijing denied.
China stirred alarm in the region last month by sending four warships to land troops on its southernmost claim -- the James Shoal, just 80 km (50 miles) off the Malaysian coast and close to Brunei. The crew of the ships held a ceremony on the shoal, swearing an oath to defend and “build up” the South China Sea and protect China’s sovereignty, state media reported.
The show of strength likely ruffled Malaysia, which has taken a more low-key approach than Vietnam and the Philippines over its claims.
Regional navies are no match for China, but the United States, which has said it has a national interest in maritime freedom of passage, is beefing up its forces in the region, especially after recent tensions with North Korea.
U.S. B-52 and B-2 bombers flew sorties over South Korea in recent weeks and Washington is moving the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system to its Pacific base in Guam.
Last week, the United States sent the first of its Littoral Combat Ships, a new class of a coastal warship, on an eight-month deployment to Singapore.
“It’s a bathtub and more and more countries are pouring ships into the bathtub,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy. “It’s just a matter of time before they bump into one another.”
Tensions over the dispute first peaked last year in the two-month stand-off between China and the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal.
Forones, the fisherman in the coastal town of Masinloc, says he was working at the shoal when the confrontation started.
“That was the first time we saw large ships from the two countries appearing at the shoal at the same time. Then our coastguard came and told us to leave because there might be a war ... That was the last time we had a bountiful harvest.”
Since then, his catch has shrank so much that his wife has switched from selling fish at the local market to selling pork. He said he was considering selling one of his three boats and his delivery truck.
The Scarborough shoal is famed among fisherman for its rich waters, packed with turtles and squid as well as fish such as grouper and mackerel. The long monsoon season means it is only accessible by small boats from January to May, giving fish stocks plenty of time to recover each year.
Forones and other fishermen still try to fish at the shoal, face a tense cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese ships.
“It’s really scary now,” said Miguel Betana, a 45-year-old boat captain, who has fished at the shoal for 15 years.
“I have had worse experiences at sea, but being chased by a very fast Chinese ship I was thinking what if the ship rams our boat or if they shoot us. No one will ever find out.”
When he was last there in late March, he saw five Chinese ships, four of them sitting at the shoal’s mouth. After being chased off by one armed ship, he said he returned under cover of darkness to resume fishing.
Zaldy Godores, a 34-year-old from the town of Santa Cruz, said his boats could no longer fish far from shore because they had lost the protection from storms provided by the shoal.
Forones said three of his ships were chased as far as 24 km (15 miles) from the shoal in January. That was when he noticed that the Chinese had submerged an arm-thick rope stretching across the shoal’s mouth to snag boat propellers.
“We are like thieves, stealing what really should be our riches,” Forones said.
Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in Kuala Lumpur, Randy Fabi and Jonathan Thatcher in Jakarta and Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Jason Szep, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson