The steel-hulled Chinese boat that ran aground on Tubbataha Reef on April 8 is still there—and the longer it stays stuck, the more the important questions gain traction.
Just what is it doing there? According to the interpreter provided to the boat’s 12-man crew by the Coast Guard, the Chinese crewmembers say that they came from Indonesia, were headed back to China, but got lost along the way. That’s an interesting story, not necessarily implausible, but the incredulity with which many people greeted this explanation may have been captured in a Navy official’s simple question: “Why is a Chinese fishing boat in the Sulu Sea?”
Is the Ming Long Yu in fact a fishing vessel? A defense official requesting anonymity told the Inquirer that authorities had belated doubts. “It is not even loaded with ice, which is normal to a fishing operation.” Inquirer correspondent Redempto Anda, seeking independent confirmation about that particular assertion, reported: “Angelique Songco, Tubbataha marine park superintendent, confirmed that the Ming Long Yu had no equipment and facilities for fish storage, such as ice makers and refrigerated holds.”
Are the 12 crewmembers genuine fishermen? Songco herself has been quoted as saying that the crewmembers did not look like “typical poachers” she and other marine park rangers were familiar with. That not one member of the crew carried passports or identification cards does not prove or disprove genuineness; after all, how many Filipino fishermen set sail with their passports or IDs? But another official has also remarked on how the Chinese crew looked different—this is merely the voice of experience speaking, and needs to be verified, but given that the boat does not seem to be outfitted like a fishing vessel, it is a remark worth looking into. And if they are not fishermen, what were they doing?
Is the Chinese government prepared to help? There is no question that the Chinese embassy tried to help the crew as soon as the news hit the headlines; Consul General Shen Zicheng and Third Secretary Li Jian flew to Palawan and tried to make the case that the incident was an accident and that the fishermen should be freed. (This in itself is not proof of unwelcome foreign intervention; we do it ourselves, not only when Filipino citizens have been arrested abroad, but even after they have already been convicted.) But when Songco asked Shen if the embassy could help extricate the vessel from Tubbataha, “Shen told her that the vessel owner was a private company and that he did not know how to get in touch with the company.” Again, not an implausible answer, but hardly a responsive one. The embassy could have simply asked the crewmembers where the company was located, and that would have been a helpful lead.
How could a second ship run aground in Tubbataha, mere days after the last pieces of a US Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian, were finally lifted off the reef? “It’s clear in the charts that the Tubbataha sanctuary is off-limits to navigation, but there seems to be a line of ships just waiting to violate that regulation,” Songco said, apparently tongue in cheek. But the rangers stationed in the marine park also suffer from inadequate support. It turns out, for example, that the radar they use to track incursions into the area is turned on only every three hours. “It can’t be used the whole day as it consumes a lot of energy,” Songco said. “Between those three hours, we can’t always monitor intrusions.”
What can be done to prevent similar incidents from happening again? Aside from adding more park rangers, providing a bigger budget to fund the 24-hour operation of the radar system, and ensuring that up-to-date navigation charts are more widely circulated, the Philippine government must not miss the chance to display a firm resolve. This is the right, long-term way to discourage similar incidents in the future. Congress must use the outcry against the paltry fine levied on the US Navy to change the law and impose higher fines; at the same time, Malacañang must ensure that the case against the Ming Long Yu 12 be pursued with great vigor—to turn a mysterious incident into a cautionary example.