The nation’s chattering classes have just viewed, like a Netflix TV show, half a dozen episodes of a thriller series played out on Philippine mainstream media with the support of Western news networks and a cast of Filipino officials and political performers. The thriller, which could have been entitled “From Fishing boats to Coup Plot” started on March 20, 2021 and ended on April 18, 2021.
The bogeyman are the 220 Chinese fishing boats that the Philippines’ Task Force-West Philippines Sea (TF-WPS) reported as “... believed to be manned by Chinese militia” that were anchored at the lagoon of the Union Banks’ Whitsun (Julian Felipe) Reef’s lagoon. From “believed to be” to “Chinese Maritime Militia” is quite a leap of the imagination, but the Philippine mainstream media did it anyway.
There were several stages of the news spin: it started with the original fake news that tagged the Chinese fishing boats as “CMM” (Chinese Maritime Militia) and continued until the wind-down of the entire agit-prop (agitation and propaganda) operation on April 18, 2021 when defense officials Lorenzana and Sobejana tamped down the social media spin of some “AFP officials’ withdrawal of support.”
From merely being ships moored at the Whitsun Reef, the 220 Chinese fishing boats became a “swarm.” However, anyone familiar with deep sea fishing operations knows that fishing fleets of hundreds of boats are not unusual. According to SEAFDEC, the Philippines’ total fishing fleet numbers up to 250,000 small and medium sized boats, while the registered commercial fishing fleet number 4,000 ships.
For China, whose fishing vessels are running up to about 700,000 boats that are scattered all over its inland and coastal waters and all across the globe, 220 boats cannot be considered a “swarm.” Yet, that is how media characterized the Whitsun Reef group of boats.
The Chinese embassy had earlier explained that the 220 fishing boats were at Whitsun Reef’s lagoon to take shelter from inclement weather. My own research led me to several weather reports, including satellite photos of the American NOAA (National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration) that showed red lines whipping the area on March 24, 2021 (NOAA Operational Model Archive and Distribution System).
Despite the Chinese Embassy’s assurance that the 220 fishing boats would depart, as soon as the weather cleared, to proceed with their fishing activities, the spin of Philippine mainstream media continued to escalate from: (1) the “militia ships” getting set to “occupy” the reef to (2) an “invasion” of the reef, and (3) to “setting up structures” on the reef. None of these have happened after the 30 days since March 20, 2021.
What did happen? When Chinese ambassador, H.E. Huang Xilian, mentioned the inclement weather, Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana – inexplicably – took it as an affront and lashed out at the diplomat. The defense secretary had no business referring directly to the Chinese ambassador and should have deferred his reaction to the DFA. His reaction was also based on a total misunderstanding of how fishing boats operate.
The 220 Chinese fishing boats eventually sailed off to different parts of the SCS to resume their fishing. The numbers at Whitsun Reef went down to 40, and then 9; and we have no further recent reports. But as the fishing boats went out to fish, mainstream media started spinning the story that “China robs Philippines of billions worth of fish”, without considering the other littoral countries who likewise fish in the SCS.
As a beneficiary of the fishing grounds in the SCS, China is the most responsible, being the only country to impose an annual ban for all its fisher folk in the SCS from May to August of each year. In October 2018, Lorenzana said, “Normally, fishing boats of the Vietnamese are the majority entering Philippine waters.” In March of 2021, the SCSPI reported that 8,771 Vietnamese fishing vessels had been recorded in the whole of the SCS.
An ABS-CBN news team led by Chiara Zambrano staged a mock “chase” of its TV crew, hiring a boat to pose allegedly as a Chinese Coast Guard vessel to act as the chaser. The impostor boat, which the Philippine Star later mutated to become one and later, two missile boats, was eventually debunked by Atty. Sal Panelo based on the DND report of the story.
What actually happened? Instead of the Chinese Coast Guard chasing ABS-CBN’s Zambrano at the Ayungin Shoal, it was Zambrano who chased for a “scoop”, filming a Chinese Coast Guard ship and later claiming that it chased her. Lorenzana’s report to Panelo claimed that there was actually no chase. If there had been one, the faster Coast Guard ship would certainly have overtaken Zambrano’s boat.
This 30-day saga of the 220 Chinese Maritime Militia bogeyman had finally exposed itself as one huge gas lighting operation (a form of psychological abuse where a person or group molds someone’s perception of reality) whose main conspirators include the mainstream media, the politicos and bureaucrats, and the interventionist US with its assets in the Philippine Navy and AFP.
On April 8, 2021, my “Caught by the mouth” article was published here at the Manila Standard where I quoted maritime “expert” Australian Carl Thayer who said “Within the Philippine navy alone, people express views on China (that are) at odds with Duterte. ‘They’re humiliated and they’re upset.’” That set the stage for the final act – a coup plot rumor started by the TF-WPS and Navy Chief Vice Admiral Bacordo.
As usual, no one will be made to answer for all the damage in time, international goodwill and national focus that has transpired.
Herman Tiu Laurel is an author and founder of the Phil-BRICS Strategic Studies think tank.