MANILA - The June 9 incident involving the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in Recto (Reed) Bank highlights the need to focus attention on Beijing's maritime militia, which is intent on flooding the West Philippine Sea with so many boats to prevent other fishing boats to access these waters, an analyst said Thursday.
Gregory Poling, director of Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said Chinese maritime militia and Chinese Coast Guard vessels have "harassed, rammed and beat up" Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracels regularly. He noted that a few months ago, crew members of a Chinese fishing boat forcibly boarded and stole the catch off a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Poling noted there are "hundreds of Chinese state-directed militia vessels in the Spratlys" intent on flooding the area "with so many Chinese boats that it will be harder for Filipino and Vietnamese and Malaysian fishing boats to go there and operate."
He added Beijing "has to pay some kind of an international cost for running an illegal paramilitary force."
"It is not a secret, it is written in the Chinese legislation. These militia vessels train with the People's Liberation Army, they have uniforms in many cases, they put up photos on Weibo...it is not a secret and yet Beijing tries to deny it in the international press," he said.
Beijing earlier denied reports that the incident was a hit and run, as Philippine authorities had described, saying the vessel was identified as Chinese fishing boat Yuemaobinyu 42212, and that its captain wanted to rescue the Filipinos thrown overboard but were "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats."
Poling, however, said Beijing's claim was absolutely ridiculous and a childish attempt to deflect blame.
"Nobody else reported any other vessel nearby. Obviously the Filipinos wouldn't have felt the need to paddle 2 hours toward a distant light if there were 7 or 8 bancas nearby," he said.
Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, head of the government response team on the incident, said there can be no justification for the Chinese fishing boat captain's decision to leave the distressed Filipino fishermen in open sea.
Poling also confirmed that Yuemaobinyu 42212, the Chinese vessel involved in the ramming, went "dark" by turning off its automatic identification system. This meant that the vessel was trying to hide its behavior, either because it was part of the maritime militia engaged in paramilitary activities or was engaged in illegal poaching.
"It was clearly doing something it didn't want seen," he said.
The analyst said the Philippines could still trace back the ownership of Yuemaobinyu 42212 to know the fleet and seek reparations or sanctions.
He also noted that even before the June 9 incident, there was "visible anger" over the unabated poaching of giant clams by Chinese fishermen in Scarborough Shoal and the presence of maritime militia near Philippine islands.
"This incident might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. The outpouring of anger is palpable. It feels different. President Duterte has walked back some of its pro-Beijing policy but it usually lasted only a brief time," he said.
"This time, I don't think it will blow over and I suspect the government may be making a mistake by so clearly siding with Beijing's line here and trying to make the victims, the Filipino fishermen, out to be the liars."