The Conflict for Marine Resources in the West Philippine Sea

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase–Albert Del Rosario Institute


Image Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer

When the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled favorably for the Philippines on the West Philippine Sea dispute, one of the more immediate questions was: “Can Filipinos now resume fishing in the waters of Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys without harassment from the Chinese Coast Guard?” Unfortunately, there was no definitive response from the government apart from the plea for caution and sobriety. And not all will heed the government’s advice, especially those on an empty stomach.

This situation thus highlights the importance of the marine ecosystem in the disputed waters, which directly affects the fishing grounds of surrounding coastal communities. Countless Filipino fisher folk are deprived of the marine resources supposedly guaranteed by international law as affirmed by the recent decision.

Professor John McManus of the University of Miami pegs the economic damage from China’s incursions at nearly $6 billion per year from the destruction of an estimated 16,200 hectares of coral reef.1 This approximation only factored in the environmental services provided by the coral reefs, not the human anguish brought about by this dispute. That is harder to ascertain.

Several reports had revealed harassment of Chinese Coast Guard on Filipino fishermen. One news story said water cannons were used, with rubber boats carrying armed personnel chasing away our fishermen.2 Another said laser lights beamed from Chinese vessels.3 Finally, one account said a Chinese vessel rammed its less equipped Filipino counterpart.4 These were confirmed by the Arbitral Tribunal, which concluded that China did actively prevent Filipinos from engaging in traditional fishing in Scarborough Shoal.5 All these point to a reality on the ground: there is conflict for resources.

What’s saddest, however, is that these marine resources so crucial for multitudes of Filipino marginal fisher folk will only get increasingly scarce due to the massive land reclamation carried out by China, alongside the maximum tolerance it employs as regards the destructive fishing practices of its countrymen. Worse, the South China Sea dispute not only involves China and the Philippines but all the nations bordering the vast sea. Thus, while supply is dwindling as everyone competes for fisheries and marine resources, aggressive building activities effectively cut the supply even more. Taking out the coral reefs means taking out the place where fish spawn, feed, and seek shelter in. A classic example how vulnerable humans get when their environment is destroyed, when people fail to realize that we are in one big ecosystem where an imbalance in one part will be inevitably felt by other parts inside the system.

Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship (PBEST) Secretary General Ysan Castillo rightly advocates for “systems-thinking” in approaching environmental problems. Seeing that anything related to the environment has an effect on the rest of society, PBEST calls for a united front where all sectors ̶ business, government, academe, civil society ̶ can come together to find a common ground and solve the systemic environmental problem.

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has called on all nations involved to build trust within the region through activities that foster common objectives. He believes that finding that common should be easy: everyone has a stake in preserving the integrity of marine ecosystems in the disputed waters.

Perhaps it is this kind of combination that can address the situation in the West Philippine Sea: a systemic approach and an attitude of good faith. Nothing can be solved if we are divided as a nation, with the sectors advocating different solutions and achieving nothing.


1 Quartz, The most ignored aspect of the South China Sea brawl might be the key to solving it available at
2 Rappler, PH Coast Guard confirms Filipino fishermen harassed by China available at
3 Philippine Star, Fishermen vow to go back to Panatag available at
4 Inquirer, Chinese vessels ram PH fishers’ boat at Panatag available at
5 Permanent Court of Arbitration, The South China Sea Arbitration Award PCA Case Nº 2013-19, 12 July 2016, par. 814.

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