Eric getting on to boat/ Boat being loaded with supplies

 

00:00

 

CAMPBELL: I've been to plenty of conflict zones but never on a boat full of chickens. It's taking supplies to a small village in the Spratly Islands.

00:11

 

That's the centre of one of Asia's most volatile disputes, with six countries fighting over undersea oil fields. We've been allowed to come along for the ride. 

00:21

Eric to camera walking amongst passengers

"We have really lucked out here. I have been trying to get to the Spratly Islands for 20 years. It is such a sensitive area and it's normally completely off limits to Western media and that's one of the remarkable things about this conflict. It has simmered for decades, it's regularly put the region on the brink of war, but outside of Asia few people have even heard of the islands and almost nobody's seen them. This is going to be quite a trip".

00:34

Map showing location of Spratly Islands

Music

01:02

 

 

CAMPBELL: The Spratly Islands are a smattering of islets, reefs and sandbars in the South China Sea. They have no value in themselves but they're believed to be surrounded by vast oil and gas beds. We're heading to the main Philippine controlled island, Pagasa, and we'll be sailing through hostile waters. 

01:04

 

Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim some of the islands, and China reckons it owns the lot - right up to its neighbours' shores. 

01:25

Wake of boat

 

01:36

Boat

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "That's where this conflict is really getting serious,

01:43

Mayor Eugenio on board boat

because China claims the whole of the South China Sea - probably because the name is South China Sea" (laughs).

01:48

View from boat

 

01:54

Mayor Eugenio on board boat

CAMPBELL: Eugenio Bito-Onon is mayor of the land claimed by the Philippines. His municipality, called Kalayaan, has just 150 residents - but he believes the oil could transform his impoverished nation.

01:59

 

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "We call our Kalayaan Island group, the submerged Saudi Arabia of the Philippines".

02:15

GVs from boat

 

02:22

 

Campbell on bunk with book

CAMPBELL: "The Spratly Islands have only ever had one outing in popular culture and that was back in the ‘90s when the great thriller writer Tom Clancy penned this book, SSN, the code for nuclear-powered attack submarines. Just to quote the back cover: ‘China has invaded the oil-rich Spratly Islands. The American response has been swift and deadly and the Third World War has begun'. Clancy was so taken with the idea of it, he even turned it into a CD ROM video game". 

02:27

Excerpt of video game

VIDEO GAME: This is Greg Haze of the Pentagon. In a shock move China has launched an all-out assault on the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea. We have reports that Chinese forces have overrun positions maintained by other nations who claim the islands as their own.

02:58

 

CAMPBELL: The game lets computer nerds command US submarines to sink the Chinese fleet.

03:13

Archival. Chinese and Vietnamese battle

In real life the only serious fighting has been between China and Vietnam. In 1988 they fought a brief but bloody skirmish on a disputed reef. More than 60 Vietnamese died in what China hailed as a great victory. 

03:22

 

CHINESE COMMENTARY: "History will remember this moment forever".

03:42

 

2014 footage Chinese ram Vietnamese ship

CAMPBELL: Diplomacy stopped further bloodshed but this year relations have deteriorated dramatically. On May 7, Chinese maritime forces rammed a Vietnamese ship in disputed islands north of the Spratlys. Vietnam was trying to stop China installing an oil rig. Both sides fired on each other with water cannon. 

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "By all kinds of assertiveness,

03:48

Mayor Eugenio

China is doing a lot of things, maybe not just by bullying around our fishermen or small navies".

04:13

Mayor Eugenio on laptop

CAMPBELL: China has been trying to squeeze the Philippines out of the Spratlys and seize every unoccupied land mass.

04:23

Aerial. Shoal

It's built a huge installation on Mischief Reef, an underwater shoal it took from the Philippines in 1994. 

04:33

Campbell with Mayor Eugenio showing Mischief Reef

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "This is Mischief Reef and it's an atoll. It's not even an island. The Chinese constructed first this fishermen's shelter - later on, a three-storey high garrison with a basketball court. There's already a wind generator".

04:40

 

CAMPBELL: "So they've been just built above the sea line".

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONION: "The reef".

CAMPBELL: "Yeah, above the reef".

05:02

Photos. Malaysian and Vietnamese reef bases

Music

05:05

 

CAMPBELL: Malaysia and Vietnam have followed China's lead, building reef bases that would look at home in a James Bond film. 

05:10

 

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "You see the premises of the hotel and you see the swimming pool and a jetty port".

05:19

Campbell with Mayor looking at photos

CAMPBELL: "You don't have that on your islands do you?"

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "We just envy".

05:28

 

CAMPBELL: To the mayor's despair the only country building hardly anything is the cash strapped Philippines. 

05:33

Mayor shows Pagas Island on computer

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "This is Pagasa, our pristine, beautiful island waiting for development".

05:39

Dolphins swim alongside boat

Music

05:46

Lawak island

CAMPBELL: After two days at sea we stop off at one of the Philippines' islands, called Lawak.

06:17

Marines on Lawak

Rather than no expense being spared, it looks like no expense has been spent. There are just a few marines living rough on a ration of six glasses of water a day. But this is luxury compared to conditions at a neighbouring marine base seven nautical miles away. It's on a sand bar. 

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "There's a structure... a concrete structure

06:22

 

Campbell with Mayor Eugenio

where they are accommodated".

CAMPBELL: "Wow".

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "That's where they... their sleeping quarters".

CAMPBELL: "On a sand bar".

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "Yeah".

06:47

On board boat.

CAMPBELL: Back on the boat, conditions aren't much better.

06:59

Jacqueline with children on boat

Jacqueline Morales is the village school teacher on Pagasa. With three tired children of her own, the trip home is anything but restful. 

07:03

 

JACQUELINE MORALES: "It's very difficult for me to stay on this ship, because of the conditions - it's very hot".

07:13

 

CAMPBELL: It takes a dose of patriotism to move to a speck of disputed land in the middle of the ocean.

07:22

 

JACQUELINE MORALES: "As a teacher, it is a big thing that I am living there and the school stays. It will deter the Chinese, because they do not like that there is a school there and that people live in that place".

07:29

GVs of boat/Frigate

CAMPBELL: By the morning of day three we're in the middle of disputed territory. A Filipino navy frigate shadows us as we approach land occupied by Vietnam and China. Sometimes they're literally side by side. 

07:44

Parola

This is the islet of Parola.

08:06

Campbell greets marines

There's a small detachment of Filipino marines drilling against Chinese attacks.

08:09

View of Pugad from Parola

The Philippines used to also have marines on the neighbouring island of Pugad less than three kilometres away, but in 1975 Vietnam seized it. 

"Now the way this side tells it

08:17

Campbell to camera

is that one day the Filipino marines left the island to go on patrol and the Vietnamese, who'd been watching and waiting offshore, took the chance to sweep in and claim possession and they have been there ever since. And the lesson drawn from that is that no matter what you argue about law or sovereignty, if you want to control the Spratly Islands, you have to occupy them".

08:29

Campbell walks with Mayor Eugenio along sand

Mayor Eugenio has watched sadly as Vietnam builds multi-story structures and a harbour on Pugad while Parola remains a collection of beach huts. He says money earmarked for his islands has disappeared into politicians' pockets. 

08:51

 

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "We belong to the poorest municipality. I'm not a national government chief executive.

09:08

Mayor Eugenio. Super:
Eugenio Bito-onon
Kalayaan Mayor

I believe that the national government should exist to support the local government. That's what I'm doing now, just really asking them to help me because my vision for Kalayaan is to develop this for marine fisheries, a special zone for marine fisheries and tourism".

09:12

Back on board boat

 

09:33

Passengers in life jackets get into smaller boats

CAMPBELL: Four hours later we finally catch sight of Pagasa.

09:38

 

The passengers are a mixture of council workers and returning residents. At 37 hectares it's the largest Philippine controlled island

09:44

Aerial. Pagasa

with a dirt airstrip for the adjoining military base.

09:56

Rusting wreck

But surrounded by rusting wrecks, it looks almost as neglected as Parola. 

10:00

Campbell and Mayor

"I think you need a jetty".

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "There's supposed to be a jetty, where you see here there's a causeway. Never finished".

CAMPBELL: "Oh dear".

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "Since 1997".

10:04

Passengers wade to shore

CAMPBELL: Even the smaller boat can't dock

10:17

Campbell wades to shore carrying tripod

in the shallow water so everything has to be carried the last thirty metres. 

"This is not an easy place to get to". 

10:19

Island sunset

Music

10:33

 

CAMPBELL: Unlike on some of the other countries' islands, there's no luxury hotel here - in fact there are no facilities for visitors at all.

10:37

Campbell getting into tent

Not that it really matters. After four days on the boat, this feels like luxury. 

10:44

Morning on island

Music

10:54

Council workers doing dance exercise class

 

11:16

 

CAMPBELL: The mayor's enthusiastic council workers start early. They have a host of new projects to get up over the next two weeks, including the first mobile phone tower. The arrival of the supply boat has temporarily doubled the population. 

11:23

Ceremony. Raising of flag

Before the 1950s these islands were completely uninhabited. The Philippines only began settling civilians here in the late ‘70s to push its case for sovereignty. The village is only now starting to look like a real community. 

11:47

Mayor addresses islanders

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: [addressing island's population] "We have a visitor here with us - a doctor doing a medical mission for all in the village". [applause]

12:10

Ribbon cutting ceremony

CAMPBELL: Mayor Eugenio has stretched his meagre budget to build some new houses, but it's a shadow of what he'd like to do. 

12:21

 

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "If I compare our development to the rest of the islands in the South China Sea I think the site for the West Philippines here is all the least developed

12:31

Mayor Eugenio

and sometimes you know that gives us frustration".

CAMPBELL: "Great frustration".

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "Yeah".

12:43

Man preparing fish

 

12:53

Kids on bike

CAMPBELL: After more than three decades, there are just a few dozen houses on sandy tracks. The only power comes from generators and there's no running water.

13:00

Jacqueline doing laundry

We caught up with Jacqueline Morales and her husband catching up on laundry from the four days at sea. 

13:10

 

JACQUELINE MORALES: "I'm so glad we are here in our home today. We can do what we want to do, unlike on the ship. It's so hard, you get dizzy".

13:21

Jacqueline cooking

CAMPBELL: The family has quickly settled back into island life.... the kids catching the evening meal.

13:42

Jacqueline's children

But she's all too aware of how precarious the community's future is if China continues to squeeze. 

13:48

Husband with laundry

JACQUELINE MORALES: "I worry about what might happen.

13:57

Jacqueline interview

We know how interested they are in this island. Of course they can do whatever they want to do and even if there are still people here, well, I'll leave it in God's hands".

14:05

Children swimming

CAMPBELL: None of that worries her daughters of course. For them, Pagasa is close to paradise.

14:20

Bunkers on beach

The concrete bunkers at the end of the beach are a testament to the long-running hostilities. They were built in the early ‘70s a few years after the military base was established. 

14:28

Mayor in bunker

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "If you have one like this and you get hit by an M-16, you will not be hurt, because it's so thick".

14:40

Old tank/Mayor in bunker

CAMPBELL: Unable to match China's growing military, the Philippines has asked the UN to arbitrate. Beijing has refused to take part in the case and is already exploiting the disputed resources. 

14:50

Mayor in bunker

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "That's the boats used for hauling clams and coral". 

15:03

Dredges on horizon

CAMPBELL: There's a constant rumble of Chinse dredges on the outer reef. They run 24 hours a day crushing the coral. 

15:089

Coral

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "Mainly they're using that... turning that into powder and then they use that as fillers for boat building".

15:17

 

CAMPBELL: Mayor Eugenio wants to turn the reef into a protected marine park. Now he's worried there'll be no coral or fish left. 

15:23

Mayor in bunker

MAYOR EUGENIO BITO-ONON: "If you go there, there's no more rocks, it's just become turned into sand". 

15:33

Dredges on horizon

Music

15:40

Boarding boat. Night

 

15:46

 

Campbell to camera

CAMPBELL: "Okay, well it's just an hour before high tide and we're about to head over the reef overnight to the most important part of where we want to get to and that's Ayungin Shoal. That is a Filipino marine base on a scuttled ship on a submerged reef and it's been very highly contested by China. Now if indications of the last few months are anything to go by, it seems Chinese coastguard vessels will try to stop us. So now comes the hard part".

15:51

Campbell in small boat

 

16:28

 

The Chinese Coast Guard has blocked the last three supply boats trying to make this journey. We'll be taking a smaller faster boat to try to evade them.

16:35

 

"What's going to happen if they do chase us? What will the captain do?"

CREWMAN: "They will not hurt us, if we keep going... we don't stop".

16:45

Crew pray

 

16:58

Dawn/Campbell on boat

Music

17:11

Approaching reef/Chinese boat

CAMPBELL: By late morning we're in sight of the disputed reef, which the Filipinos call Ayungin Shoal. Our one advantage is that the Chinese ships are stationed on the other side of the reef, ready to block supply boats coming from the mainland. By the time their radar spots us, they have to move right around the reef to stop us. 

17:28

 

Music

17:51

Campbell to camera

CAMPBELL: "We have just seen two Chinese vessels bearing down on us so the captain's asked us to stay out of view, and we'll try just to pass ourselves off as a fishing boat and pass on through... we'll see". 

17:55

 

Music

18:07

Sierra Madre

CAMPBELL: We can now see our destination, a scuttled ship called the Sierra Madre.

18:10

Chinese coast guard approaches

The Coast Guard vessel continues to race towards us, billowing exhaust as it tries to close the gap.

18:15

 

Music

18:22

 

CAMPBELL: But it's too late.

18:26

Campbell to camera

"Well it looks like we've made it because while the Coast Guard vessel is still coming towards us at speed, the reef here now is so shallow that I don't think they can follow us".

18:32

Cheers from crew

 

18:39

Approaching Sierra Madre

CAMPBELL: At first glance Sierra Madre looks like it belongs in a wrecking yard. On closer inspection, it looks even worse.

18:45

Campbell climbing onto ship

The US built ship carried tanks in World War II and last saw service in Vietnam. It was in bad shape when the Philippines scuttled it here in 1999, now it's literally falling apart. 

18:55

 

Campbell shares meal with marines

The marines are making the best of it. They've caught enough reef fish that morning to welcome us with a banquet, but a military unit can't survive on fish. It needs generator fuel, maintenance equipment, medicine and above all else, water. 

19:12

Campbell with Pama at laptop showing footage

 

19:41

 

Second Lieutenant Earl Pama is the detachment commander. After lunch, he shows me what happened when they tried to come here with supplies a month earlier. It took two attempts to break through. 

19:46

 

SECOND LIEUTENANT EARL PAMA: "They moved close to us, about 20 metres, 20 metres so we couldn't get in. They stop us by fronting the bow of our boat. 

19:59

Pama

The problem was, if we got hit, probably our boat would be damaged and the lives of my men would be in danger".

20:13

Chinese ship at reef

Music

20:24

 

CAMPBELL: The Chinese ships circle the reef like sharks, coming to within 200 metres of the Sierra Madre.

20:28

 

China claims it's the Philippines breaking the law, occupying the reef it calls Ren'ai in the islands it calls Nan'sha.

20:36

 

SECOND LIEUTENANT EARL PAMA: "They want to move the ship out and they want to claim that the Ayungin Shoal belongs to the People's Republic of China.

20:49

Pama

But the truth is, Ayungin Shoal is the territory of the Philippines".

21:00

Marines head out to find food/Spear fishing

CAMPBELL: Lt Pama and his men are combat veterans from the war against Islamic insurgents in Mindanao. Their main operation now is finding food. Every morning they head out to spear fish under the watchful eyes of the Chinese.

21:07

Preparing fish/Rusty ship

Their other battle is keeping busy. There's not much to do on the ship and you have watch where you walk. Injuries from falling through the deck are common. 

SECOND LIEUTENANT EARL PAMA: "The Government has plans to repair the ship.

21:36

Pama

They sent supplies and equipment for repair but were unable to get through because they were stopped by the Chinese Coast Guards. So it's not been repaired".

21:51

Supply plane

Music

22:05

 

CAMPBELL: Once a month there's a small relief mission that China hasn't worked out how to block.

22:15

Parcel drop

Music

22:20

 

CAMPBELL: The parcels are dropped as close as possible to the ship - sometimes even on it.

22:29

 

Music

22:34

Sisneros retrieves parcels from ocean

CAMPBELL: Staff Sergeant Alan Sisneros heads out on a small raft to collect the strays. 

"So are you getting a bit sick of fish?"

22:45

 

 

STAFF SERGEANT ALAN SISNEROS: "No. By and by.... ah... every day we eat fish, so I need another...ah... to have on my tongue. 

CAMPBELL: "Fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, fish for dinner".

STAFF SERGEANT ALAN SISNEROS: "All fish, all fish".

CAMPBELL: "Got to love those fish".

STAFF SERGEANT ALAN SISNEROS: Yes. Maybe inside this box there's meat or beef...

22:58

 

CAMPBELL: Moments like this are a rare break in the monotony of life on a ship that never moves.

"Do you ever wish the Philippines would give you a slightly better ship to live on?"

23:24

 

STAFF SERGEANT ALAN SISNEROS: "I cannot answer you, Sir".

23:34

Parcels hoisted aboard ship

 

23:41

Opening parcels in mess room

 

23:46

 

CAMPBELL: Up in the mess room, the parcels are opened greedily. The contents appear aimed more at morale than blockade busting. It's telling what passes for luxury. 

23:51

Sisneros holds can of Spam

STAFF SERGEANT ALAN SISNEROS: "Spam bacon! This Spam bacon... good."

24:02

 

Takeaway chicken in containers

CAMPBELL: There's even Jolibee Fried Chicken from the Philippines' very own junk food chain.

24:08

Letters and drawings from school children

One small package provokes the most intense reaction, it has letters and drawings from school children on the mainland. 

24:19

Marine with letter

FILIPINO MARINE: "I feel sad, lonely, but I'm proud to be here to defend our territory".

24:26

Marine reading letter

[reading letter from school child] "My Dear Soldiers, Thank you for heroically guarding our territory. You are our inspiration. We love you all, Jun Louis Garcia". 

24:36

Child's drawing of ship

Music

24:52

Chinese Coast Guard in distance

 

24:55

Campbell in water

CAMPBELL: This is. on so many levels. an absurd dispute. The reef could be a marine park and a diving magnet. Or if all the nations could agree, it could be a properly managed oil field that didn't destroy the environment.

25:06

Campbell swimming by ship

Instead, it's closed to outsiders with a small band of marines stuck on a ghost ship surrounded by Chinese ships patrolling day and night. In the meantime, the reefs are being destroyed on an industrial scale. 

25:23

 

Music

25:37

Night. Preparing for departure

 

25:44

 

CAMPBELL: We left the next morning before dawn hoping to again escape unscathed.

25:57

Dawn. Leaving Sierra Madre

The Coast Guard let us pass but in the days that followed the dispute over the South China Sea worsened, with anti-Chinese riots breaking out across Vietnam.

26:03

 

This conflict has been lying dormant and unseen for a generation. Now it threatens to erupt as a rising China turns its power to the sea. 

26:17

 

This conflict has been lying dormant and unseen for a generation. Now it threatens to erupt as a rising China turns its power to the sea. 

26:28

Credits:

Reporter: Eric Campbell

Camera: Wayne McAllister

Editor: Nicholas Brenner

Producer: Marianne Leitch

Executive producer: Steve Taylor

26:37

 

 

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom
Email: info@journeyman.tv

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more info see our Cookies Policy