MASINLOC/MANILA, Philippines (Reuters) - A 30-foot trawler named “Marvin” lies beached on a grass bank overlooking the South China Sea, idle since China’s coastguard began driving away Philippine fishermen after a fierce standoff four years ago.
Its 10-man crew once made their living off the abundant fish stocks of the disputed Scarborough Shoal some 124 nautical miles away. But since Beijing’s patrol boats moved in, the fishermen of the west coast town of Masinloc said they had been forced to do odd jobs ashore, or become motorcycle taxi drivers.
The crews yearn to get back into their boats and hope that the Philippine election on May 9 will bring a new president bold enough to stand up to China’s assertiveness in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
It is something they say incumbent Benigno Aquino was hesitant to do, while the frontrunner to succeed him, the hard-talking mayor of Davao city, Rodrigo Duterte, has indicated he may take a tougher line with Beijing.
“We want a tougher president who would make China leave the Philippine Sea,” said the Marvin’s shirtless captain, Biany Mula, referring to the waters by their Philippine name.
“That area is not their property.”
The sentiment is shared by fishermen from Vietnam and Malaysia, as China’s fishing fleet and accompanying coastguard armada have expanded within a nine-dash line that denotes Beijing’s claims to nine-tenths of the world’s most contested waterway.
With a relatively small and under-equipped military, the Philippines wants no confrontation with China, but it has been vocal in asserting its claims to the Spratly islands and its rights to exploit its coastal waters.
It has also angered China by indirectly challenging its claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. China has refused to recognize the court’s authority or abide by the ruling, which is expected soon.
Some Filipino fishermen are optimistic a new leader can find a solution.
“I’ll vote because somebody will resolve the issue in the Scarborough Shoal,” said Alexander Manzano, fixing a boat moored on a makeshift dock.
“I believe someone will be able to do it. That’s why I’ll vote.”
That someone could be Duterte, who is roaring ahead in opinion polls with talk of employing deadly methods to eradicate crime and corruption.
His position on the South China Sea is vague, however, in what has largely been a single-issue campaign.
When the topic came up in debates, Duterte promised not to put the Philippine navy in harm’s way, but said he would personally challenge China by riding a jet-ski to the Spratlys to plant a Philippine flag.
For key ally the United States, a Duterte presidency brings much uncertainty. A Washington-based official closely following the election said Duterte’s stance on the South China Sea appeared “contradictory”, mixing both bellicose and conciliatory messages about dealing with Beijing.
Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Duterte’s comments did not seem well thought out, including pledging to negotiate with China but only after it agrees the Spratlys belong to the Philippines.
“That’s not an opening position that will entice China to the negotiating table,” Hiebert said.
Like Washington, Beijing has given no indication who it would prefer as Philippine president.
Its foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said ties between the two countries were “extremely difficult”, but China hoped the next leadership “takes actual steps to improve relations.”
The Philippine military is prohibited from discussing the election, but some senior officers privately say they are warming to the idea of Duterte as their commander-in-chief.
His talk of crushing Islamist insurgents behind a lucrative piracy and kidnap business has appeal, they say, as does his promise to take better care of troops and make national security a priority.
Others hope Duterte will pursue a more independent foreign policy through broader diplomatic alliances and new sources of defense hardware to avoid being over-dependent on Washington.
“We’re no longer in the Cold War period. We could build our own capability with the help of many allies, not only the U.S.” said one officer.
For Joy Topaz, a fish vendor in a Masinloc shanty town, the most pressing issue is to negotiate a deal to get Filipino fishermen back to the Scarborough Shoal.
“There has been talk here about war, but we are afraid of fighting,” she said.
“Let us just fish. Let everyone be allowed to fish.”
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Mike Collett-White