Nearly 1,000 kilometers away from Manila, China's aggression in the West Philippine Sea is on voters' radars in 2022, but they don't quite feel it in their guts, not like the pandemic and the economic hardship it brings.
That's because much of the discussions revolve around legal jargon: UNCLOS, sovereignty vs. sovereign rights, exclusive economic zones. It's a routine exchange of words between Manila and Beijing that ranges from diplomatic to plain "get the f*ck out".,
What's happening in the West Philippine Sea is much closer than people think, according to a marine scientist. Instead of getting caught up in diplomat-speak, let's shift the conversation to galunggong.
"When you go to the communities, and you start talking about legal matters, no one will listen to you. But if you’re gonna start talking about galunggong -- where they are coming from, what will happen to them, how will the things happening in the WPS affect their purchasing power, how much would be the cost of galunggong tomorrow -- people start listening," said Deo Florence Onda of the UP Marine Science Institute.
What about galunggong?
Galunggong or round scad is known to hit right in the Filipino's taste buds, best eaten crunchy fried with sauteed tomatoes. It's been dubbed "the poor man's fish", whose dynamic prices have historically been used as barometer of the times, analysts have said.
In 1986, then-presidential candidate Corazon Aquino used the high price of galunggong to make a statement regarding economic hardships faced by the country under her opponent Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship.
Come 2002, when she was two years away from seeking reelection, then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo bragged about the cheaper prices of galunggong under her leadership as compared to her predecessor, Joseph Estrada.
Now, under President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, the "vanishing" of galunggong (and overall, the Philippines' declining fish catch) is seen as a ramification of China's aggression in the West Philippine Sea. However far the disputed waters are, it's much closer than you think, to the stomach even.
As early as 2001, the Philippines started importing fish scad from countries like Vietnam, Taiwan and China, which are claimant states to the South China Sea, in order to stabilize its rising prices due to low supply spawned by declining fish stocks among commercial and municipal fishers.
But imports then were limited to commercial and canning companies and restaurants. In the past decade, galunggong production in the country has declined sharply, data from state statisticians showed.
In 2018, however, round scad imports started going straight to wet markets. This came as accounts of Filipino fishermen fishing off the coasts of Zambales and Palawan, in the West Philippine Sea, reveal how much harder fishing there has gotten due to China's increased presence.
It's not just galunggong that's at stake
The 2016 arbitral award had declared the West Philippine Sea is well-within the country's exclusive economic zones, which means it has "sovereign rights" in the region. Apart from fishing rights, the Philippines has the exclusive power to exploit all other marine resources in the region, such as oil and natural gas, and the freedom to do scientific research.
In the past 26 years, the UP Marine Science Institute, which is the national center for marine scientific research in the country, has only been able to do at least eight major expeditions in the West Philippine Sea, including MSI's annual Protect WPS expeditions where Onda is chief scientist, he said, noting they usually only last two weeks up to a month long.
China, on the other hand, has managed to put up three research stations operated by the Chinese Academy of Science in the South China Sea. They have it in Yongshu Reef, Zhubi Reef, and then in Mischief Reef, which it built there in 2018 despite the 2016 ruling that declared the reef a part of the Philippines' EEZ.
“China actually sees what the Philippines is not seeing. We are very much focusing on the fisheries or what is floating around but they are interested in what lies beyond the surface, what is underneath, what is actually in the seabed," Onda said.
This July marked five years since the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration nullified China's vast maritime claims, ruling in favor of a challenge filed by the government of the late former President Noynoy Aquino.
"In our institute, a lot of our scientists found out that many of the bacteria associated with corals can actually be exploited for antibiotics, for medicine. We don’t know, maybe the next cure to cancer can be found in the WPS. The sad thing is that we’re already losing it before we actually study it," he said.
Onda said these "limited findings" reveal so much about what's happening in the waters, specifically on the destruction caused by China's activities. It's not just overfishing (which contributes to the shrinking of fish), their illegal harvesting of clams, nor is it just their reef destruction that should incite concern among Filipinos, he said.
'Find your connection'
Recalling a conversation he had with someone who "couldn't relate" to galunggong, Onda said it doesn't have to take much for someone to understand how the West Philippine Sea is for Filipinos to defend. At the time, it only took talk of dolphins to get that person interested.
In one way or another, "we need to find our connections", he said.
"Once people find that connection, they'll realize how important it is to care about a very far place that is actually theirs. Then the more they'll feel the need to call out the government to do more in defending it," he added.