Filipina fisherman Mariel Villamonte spent years fishing and fishing in the turquoise waters of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea before a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed her boat.
That was in 2012, when China took control of the small ring of reefs from the Philippines, and it didn’t dare go back.
“Their ships are made of steel, ours are made of wood,” said Villamonte, now 31, recalling how two Chinese ships chased the stern of his prop before blasting it with high-pressure water.
The fishing ground, used by generations of Filipinos, is one of many potential flashpoints for military conflict over the South China Sea.
China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over almost the entire sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of it.
Trillions of dollars worth of shipping trade passes through the waterway every year, and naval vessels of the United States and Western allies regularly sail through it.
Of all the contenders, China has shown its position most aggressively in recent years.
Hundreds of Chinese coast guard and naval militia vessels roam the waters, prowling reefs, harassing and attacking fishing and other boats, and interfering with oil and gas exploration and scientific research.
Analysts say Beijing aims for regional dominance and control of all activities in the waters, and it uses its power to subdue its smaller rivals.
“They really envision themselves as the center of this region economically, politically and militarily,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime and Maritime Law.
“What they want is for weak states to simply give up and leave them there to avoid the problem.”
– “Chinese Dream” –
China often invokes the so-called nine-dash line, a vague description based on 1940s maps, to justify its claims to the South China Sea.
The Philippines filed a lawsuit in an international court challenging China’s position. The tribunal ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s claims had no legal basis.
China has since ignored the ruling, and tensions with the Philippines have eased after former President Rodrigo Duterte brushed aside his country’s legal victory and instead mocked Chinese businesses.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took over from Duterte in June this year, insisted he would support the court ruling and not allow China to trample Manila’s maritime rights.
But under President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be elected to a third consecutive term this month, China has dramatically expanded its maritime presence.
Greg Poling, director of the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), said Xi’s desire to control the waters is not about fish or fossil fuels.
His main goals are to realize the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation — Xi’s vision of returning the country to its perceived former glory — and to secure his political legitimacy.
Poling said generations of Chinese leaders have made increasingly “absurd” claims to the sea, and Xi has no choice but to “assert his claims on everything.”
Satellite images released by AMTI show that China’s water reclamation efforts far exceed those of all other claimants combined.
Poling said that since 2013, it has broken up about 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of reef to create about 1,300 hectares of new land for artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The militarized islands – complete with runways, ports and radar systems – allow Chinese ships to patrol as far south as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Apart from destroying fish farms and suffocating marine life with sediment, experts say Beijing’s actions violate international law.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China helped negotiate, countries have exclusive rights to natural resources within about 200 nautical miles of their coasts.
China’s claims stretch up to a thousand nautical miles, which Pauling said was “wildly against” the law.
“The rules that protect China as a developing littoral state now appear to be an unfair constraint on a China that believes it can impose its will on its neighbors,” he said.
– ‘Thief in Your Backyard’ –
China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal has robbed Villamonte and other fishermen in Cato village in the northern province of Pangasinan of their main source of income.
Their families started fishing in the 1980s when larger boats allowed them to make the 500 kilometer round trip. It teemed with fish and offered life-saving shelter during storms.
Now fishermen say they rely mostly on “payaos,” floating devices anchored far from the shoal and attracting yellowfin tuna left alone by Chinese boats.
After decades of overfishing by the countries surrounding the waters, men must spend more time at sea and resort to catching smaller fish.
Even so, they sometimes struggle to reconcile.
Despite the risks, Filipino fishermen still try to enter the shoal to increase their catch.
Christopher de Vera, 53, said the crew entered under cover of darkness and felt like “burglars in your own backyard”.
But he said the shallow waters were no longer teeming with fish after the corals were “shredded” by China’s giant corn harvesters.
– ‘Worst Nightmare’ –
Analysts say China’s growing assertiveness has not been seriously challenged by Southeast Asian countries because of deep differences over how to respond and fear of retaliation if it does.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is divided between countries with close ties to China, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, and others more wary of Beijing.
Their disagreement has stalled negotiations between China and ASEAN for a “code of conduct” to regulate behavior at sea.
Negotiations have dragged on for 20 years as Beijing, which prefers to deal directly with its smaller neighbors, has gone on an island-building spree.
The United States is widely regarded as the only power strong enough to withdraw, but there are concerns about its credibility.
President Joe Biden hosted ASEAN leaders in May to signal Washington’s long-term commitment to the region in the face of China’s growing influence.
But decades of inconsistent policies and neglect of the region have tarnished Washington’s image.
Shahriman Lokman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia said: “Southeast Asian countries simply do not want to bet on the United States.
China has previously used lethal force to support its claims, and recent war games over Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory, have raised alarm in the region.
Chinese and Vietnamese forces engaged in clashes in 1974 and 1988 that killed dozens of soldiers.
For now, Beijing seems interested in avoiding war while pursuing its own expansionist drive.
“They are masters at pushing their objections, this monster-warrior diplomacy, designed to intimidate and force you to surrender without a fight,” said John Blaxland, an international security and intelligence expert at the Australian National Institute. University.
And his tactics are working.
Poling said the sea could become a “China lake” as the rising risk and cost of working there forces out Southeast Asian fishermen, oil and gas companies and coast guards.
Villamonte regularly earned 6,000 pesos ($105) per trip when he fished Scarborough Shoal. Now it can be as little as 2,000 pesos or nothing.
All he knows is fishing – his father and grandfather were fishermen – and his “worst nightmare” is losing the rest of Philippine waters.
“My family will starve,” he said.