Prolonged Philippine withdrawal from fishing ban close to China bodes ill for wider system

JAKARTA, Indonesia — As China, Russia, India and other countries promote their turn as the first maritime route between Europe and Africa, the Philippines has abandoned its decades-old effort to control fishing around its waters, a move Beijing has not yet reacted to.

The central government has maintained an absolute monopoly on fishing in the South China Sea, but officials here have faced problems in enforcing those rules, which many fishermen view as an obstacle to legitimate trade.

The authorities here dropped that fight for now, saying that they first want to see the establishment of fishing zones that allow for two-way traffic, something they believe they can achieve if left alone. But U.S. officials worry that it may be too little, too late. The U.S. Navy has long demanded unimpeded freedom of navigation in the region.

“This happens in a contested area, and when there’s a struggle for control, the rules change,” said J. Michael Spence, an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “They’re trying to checkmate a rising power, and that means giving in to all the people they’re worried about.”

China has not always been outwardly unhappy with the withdrawal. Shipping routes have slowed, shipping insurance premiums have risen, and large Chinese ocean-going vessels, which have not previously visited the area, are now stopping on the way to India and Pakistan, according to Sam Bateman, a security analyst in Singapore who focuses on Southeast Asia.

Mr. Bateman said that despite the withdrawal, Chinese military vessels are still boarding fishing vessels and forcing them to register, a common practice used in disputed areas around China.

Despite all that, at least some of the fishermen who ply their trade in waters that Beijing has never really been especially friendly toward seem enthusiastic about the prospect of a free-for-all.

The Chinese nautical maps usually printed by the Philippines carry a blue line that they say marks where the line of an imaginary nation-state should sit just off the west coast of Luzon island. But beneath the map, which is on the table of contents in most government offices in Manila, Filipinos note another line — one they perceive as China’s — that goes far deeper into their nation’s offshore waters.

Mr. Bateman, the analyst, noted that the diverging lines have blocked previously friendly countries from finding safe and legal harbor off the island of Palawan, which has some of the longest undeveloped coastline in the world.

“We’re discussing changes in public policy, but we’re talking about an ocean change,” Mr. Bateman said. “Is it clear to people what it means to see the blue line on their maps in the morning?”

There are risks to any change in policy, and especially to any change that may favor China. China’s well-documented campaign of intimidation has made many here suspicious of their government, which has occasionally slipped the bounds of the law in prosecuting fishermen.

“We don’t want to have to keep busting Chinese fishermen every time they’re caught because it wouldn’t look good for us as foreign governments,” said Peter Martinez, a student who recently traveled to the region for the first time and was impressed with the Japanese, Indian and South Korean navy ships in the area. “They might know that we’re friendly, but what’s to stop the Chinese from being the honest ones?”

Indonesia’s government, which maintains a friendly relationship with Beijing, is thus far more optimistic. Officials are preparing a comprehensive manual that the public will eventually get a chance to read.

The manual provides a detailed set of rules for the ownership of waters on the islands and reefs that cluster in a fjord that divides central Indonesia and the island of Sulawesi. It delineates a broad range of legitimate fishing activities and stipulates how far away from those waters a vessel can go.

Although Indonesia has yet to publish its guidelines, that version will be similar to the one the Philippines published in May, which has not yet had its major impact on China.

“The main principle is for fishing vessels to have the right to fish,” said Linnea Buchmas, the head of Indonesia’s maritime administration in Bali. “This should be based on the rules of the national government.”

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