Philippine protesters donning cut-out turtle shells lying down during an anti-China in Manila. -AFP
The arrest of 11 Chinese fishermen (including two minors) who were caught poaching some 500 marine turtles off Hasa-Hasa Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on May 6 has raised regional tensions again, back to levels last seen during the standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels off Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in 2012.
But the Philippine government did the right thing in arresting (and in moving to deport the two minors), and China must understand that the best option now available for its nationals is to allow the Philippine legal process to proceed.
The depth of the Chinese government’s outrage can be gauged by the intemperate language of commentary allowed to be run in publications that are associated with the Communist Party of China.
That the arrest took place in an area Beijing considers sovereign territory is not the only source of Chinese grievance; that it was a small country like the Philippines that made the arrest was especially humiliating. In the words of a China Daily editorial: “The Philippines has singled itself out as a determined challenger of Chinese national interests and the devoted hatchet man of foreign anti-China forces.”
The possibility that the arrest was not part of an international conspiracy against the regional superpower, but merely the routine exercise by one government of its official responsibilities, does not seem to have occurred to official Chinese media.
Perhaps Vietnam’s vigorous response to China’s ill-conceived decision to move a drilling rig to waters claimed by Hanoi, which happened at around the same time as the fishermen’s arrest off Hasa-Hasa Shoal, added to the sense of a “determined challenge”. Hence the language “devoted hatchet man” to describe a militarily weak Philippines, “foreign anti-China forces” to refer to Vietnam, the Philippines and (especially) the United States.
The editorial carried an undisguised warning: “(The Philippines) needs to be convinced that it has made a choice that, if it persists, means paying an unaffordable price.”
But in fact, Manila has no choice in the matter. Contrary to possible misconceptions some Chinese citizens may hold, a democratically elected government does not have the luxury of disregarding its mandated responsibilities.
Presented with unequivocal information that fishermen were poaching marine turtles protected under the country’s wildlife laws, Philippine authorities had no choice but to arrest the fishermen.
They have refused to accept the legitimacy of the court proceedings (likely under the advice of the Chinese embassy), but whether they enter a plea or not, the Philippine government has no choice but to prosecute them. They cannot be allowed to disregard the legal process. Ironically, that is their best chance of returning to their families as speedily as possible. To be pardoned (say, as a concession to diplomatic realities), they must first be found guilty.