Humphrey Hawksley meets a fisherman from the Philippines who has found himself the victim of an ancient Chinese general’s teachings
Two years ago Jurrick Oson, a Philippines fisherman, was so penniless that his wife, Melinda, had to get a job as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.
With the help of neighbours and his extended family, he is now raising their four children, and has had to try and make ends meet by taking passengers here and there in his motorcycle taxi. He has stencilled the name Team Monster on the black roof of the sidecar, but the motorcycle is really too small for him, and Jurrick looks and feels cramped driving it. He is a big man, with bulging muscles and a leathery skin from a lifetime at sea.
What has happened to Jurrick over the past few years reveals much about China’s foreign policy. It is not only about Beijing’s confrontational island-building in the South China Sea, but also sheds a spotlight on how it plans to win hearts and minds as it expands through Asia and beyond.
China’s aim is to outsmart rival powers such as the US, Japan and India, and Western analysts are fond of citing the 5th Century BC Art of War by Sun Tzu, who advocated winning without a shot being fired. But with Jurrick’s story, the Chinese leadership may be reaching further back to another, more obscure, general, the 11th Century BC T’ai Kung, most famous for his work, The Six Secret Teachings.
Within it, T’ai Kung writes about using the ‘certainty of reward’ and ‘inevitability of punishment’ to help develop a bond of trust between the victor and the conquered. He explained the benefits of bribery, the bearing of gifts and encouraging of split loyalties within the enemy. All campaigns should also be embedded with a high aspiration or strong mission statement.
Jurrick comes from the northern Philippines village of Masinloc, on the South China Sea, from where his family has fished for generations. It is a quiet, slow-paced place; at the water’s edge there is a dirt track road, with shacks and small shops on one side, and the gently lapping sea on the other.
The best fishing ground is about a day’s sailing away around a triangular chain of reefs and rocks with a huge sheltered lagoon inside named after the village, Bajo de Masinloc or Lower Masinloc. Internationally, it is known as Scarborough Shoal, one of the South China Sea’s disputed fault lines, well inside the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, yet Beijing has sent its ships there to claim it as sovereign territory.
Jurrick’s ordeal began in February 2014, when Chinese coastguards ordered his fishing boat away from Scarborough Shoal. He didn’t move quickly enough, and they attacked him with water cannon. ‘I am still so angry,’ he said. ‘This powerful jet of water smashed into my boat. Then it hit me directly, and I was thrown into the sea. I tried to scramble up, and they hit me again. It was as if they really wanted to kill me.’
Jurrick managed to cling on and pull himself to safety. The Filipino fishing crews working there retreated. The immediate reaction from the then president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, was to compare China’s maritime actions to Nazi Germany’s 1930s land grab in Europe. His successor, Rodrigo Duterte, warned of a ‘bloody confrontation’, saying: ‘We will not give into them easily. It will be the bones of our soldiers, you can include mine.’ And from the grass roots came Jurrick’s voice: ‘If I had a gun, I would have fought them. If America supports us, we should go to war with them.’
There lay the rub. The US and the Philippines have a formal defence treaty dating back to 1951, but when Duterte asked for help, American officials told him it didn’t apply: the US would not go to war over a fishing reef. That raised the question of exactly when America would choose to act as the protector against an aggressive China.
Knowing he was outgunned, Duterte flew to Beijing to cut a deal. The Philippines would keep quiet in exchange for multi-billion dollar Chinese infrastructure investment and an end to economic sanctions levelled during the Scarborough Shoal row.
A few weeks later, a Chinese official visited Masinloc itself and invited members of the local fishing association to China, all expenses paid. While there, the delegation from this rural, coastal Philippine village was shown China’s state of the art marine technology and modern trawlers, as if to underline that the colourful wooden ‘Banca’ boats that comprised the Masinloc fishing fleet, with wide outriggers strapped together with wires and ropes, were from another age – they could not survive in today’s fishing industry. Next, China promised to buy all the fish that Masinloc’s fishermen caught, at better than market rates. Then, in January, Jurrick was told he could go back to Scarborough Shoal and fish. In his first week working there, he earned ten times more than he could on his motorcycle taxi.
Similar stories are cropping up throughout Asia and further afield, along China’s One Belt One Road arc of influence, as well as in Africa, Latin America and even parts of Europe where China has set up a special trade grouping with poorer European countries. The policy is one of gifts and threats and the prising apart of loyalties.
The gift to the Philippines is a $13 billion Chinese investment. The threat is to be barred from the Chinese market. The division of loyalty is that Duterte had to publicly step away from the Philippines’ long-time ally. ‘I announce my separation from the United States,’ he declared at the end of his China visit. ‘America has lost. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.’ While the Philippines has lost control of Scarborough Shoal, its fishermen can work there, albeit under the gaze of Chinese coastguard crews, but they are banned from entering the lagoon itself, which they had used as shelter against bad weather.
These are careful step-by-step moves – threat and gift — as outlined by a Chinese strategist more than 3,000 years ago. The aim today is to create the 21st century equivalent of a vassal state. But for Jurrick all that matters is that he can keep doing the work he loves. ‘I had lost all my confidence,’ he said. ‘I am a fisherman, not a taxi driver. That is who I am. Now that I can earn money again, Melinda can come back and we can live as a family.’
Melinda’s three-year domestic helper contract in Saudi Arabia ends next year. There are now reports that, despite Duterte’s Beijing visit, China is planning land reclamation on Scarborough Shoal to build a radar station, with work beginning about the time she arrives home. The Philippine government is seeking clarification.