The Philippines on Monday demanded that China stop confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, calling the practice “unacceptable.”
The remarks by President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman were a rare public rebuke from Manila, which has taken a non-confrontational approach with Beijing over the resource-rich waterway.
China controls several reefs in the sea including Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized from Manila in 2012 and which is just 230 kilometers from Luzon.
China claims almost the entire resource-rich sea, through which $5 trillion in trade passes annually, despite competing for partial claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque on Monday confirmed a report that Chinese Coast Guard personnel seized the catch of Filipino fishermen in the shoal in May in violation of an agreement between the two nations allowing Filipinos to fish there.
“We have addressed this issue to the Chinese and we are demanding that the Chinese take steps to stop the coast guard from doing these acts,” Roque told reporters.
“That is unacceptable. That is why we informed the Chinese we will not allow fish to be taken from our countrymen.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Duterte’s administration rejects criticism that its response to Chinese activities in the hotly contested waters has been weak.
China in May reportedly deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on the Spratly Islands and flew nuclear-capable bombers to a base in another disputed part of the sea.
Duterte’s aides have said previously the Philippines is taking “all diplomatic action” to protect its claims while insisting it would not anger China by engaging in “megaphone diplomacy.”
Manila, which has pursued trade deals and investment from China, instead holds regular talks with Beijing on the dispute.
On Monday Roque refused to describe the latest incident as harassment, adding the Chinese Coast Guard gave the Filipino fishermen noodles, cigarettes, and water in exchange for their catch.
The fishermen, who appeared with Roque in the news briefing, said they were powerless to stop repeated seizures by the Chinese.
“The [Chinese Coast Guard personnel] board our boats, look at where we store the fish and take the best ones. We cannot do anything because their huge vessels are there,” said Romel Cejuela, one of the fishermen. He said the fish taken from them by the Chinese Coastguard was worth P4,000.
Roque said the incident was considered “unacceptable” and there is a need for China to discipline its “erring” personnel.
He said President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jingping had agreed when the two leaders met that Filipino fishermen can fish in the disputed region.
“Without the President ordering [it], [Foreign] Secretary Alan Cayetano on his own has relayed the information to Ambassador Zhao, and this was divulged publicly,” Roque said.,
Roque said he was present when Cayetano informed Zhao of the incident in an event that marked the 43rd anniversary of the establishment of the bilateral ties between the Philippines and China.
“Zhao assured the Philippine government that it will investigate the alleged confiscation by the Chinese Coast Guard of the fish caught by small Filipino [fishermen],” Roque said.
“The Philippine government will be relying on the word of Chinese President Xi that the Chinese government will not harass Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
Scarborough Shoal is located 124 nautical miles from Zambales and falls within the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.
This means that while other countries have freedom of navigation, only the Philippines has sovereign rights over the maritime resources in Scarborough Shoal.
The international Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling nullified China’s historical claims over the island. China has since rejected the decision and continues to patrol the area.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the government must exhaust all possible diplomatic means to settle the issue.
In a text message to reporters, Sotto noted that the President is the architect of our foreign policy.
“We are no longer United States-focused. We are now gearing towards friendly ties with all nations,” said Sotto.
He noted that we became the target of Japan during the Second World War due to our friendship with the US.
“The same day the Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, it was also the same day the Japanese bombed Baguio and Clark. Almost 1 million died in that war. They fought within our backyard,” he said.
Sotto also appealed to the media not to swallow everything the doomsayers say.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said if Malacañang will not side with the Filipino people on this issue, then the Senate can take the lead in defending the country.
Aquino lamented that China continues to harass our fishermen, militarize the seas and threaten the country’s sovereignty.
He said a strong and independent Senate can and should investigate all the country’s dealings with China, especially when the rights and livelihood of Filipinos are at risk.
“If continued, this defeatist mentality will just lead to even more abuses,” he said of the administration’s soft approach toward China.
The Liberal Party has slammed the Duterte administration for again taking an apathetic stance on the harassment and theft by Chinese coast guard instead of filing a protest.
It said this was made worse by the government-sponsored “troll machinery” that attacked the hapless fishermen and painted them as liars.
“For these fishermen to be called liars and paid hacks by internet trolls is something so outrageous,” said the Liberal Party. The party’s vice president Erin Tanada said fishermen in the country live a hand-to-mouth existence with little help from the government. Abused by the Chinese in the high seas, he noted that these fishermen were left without their catch and now attacked by their own government’s propaganda machinery.
“These Filipino fishermen can expect nothing from a morally bankrupt administration, led by the President and his spokesman, Harry Roque, who are both China fanatics,” he said. “It’s clear that China violated the rules in the traditional fishing grounds. The Duterte administration should show it is not a pushover and take action to protect the interest of the Filipino fishermen,” he further stated,
Senator Gregorio Honasan underscored the need to verify and discuss internally Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano’s claim that Malacañang has ordered the military to stop patrolling the West Philippine Sea.
He said Alejano’s claim, which he said came from a “high-ranking official” of the military, should be verified and coordinated with authorities.
A leftist lawmaker on Monday called on the administration to take concrete action to protect Filipino fishermen from harassment and illegal confiscation of their catch.
“The video that caught Chinese Coast Guards boarding a fishing boat and taking the catch of Filipino fishers not only stirs anger but is also heartbreaking due to the failure of the Duterte administration to protect our fisherfolk from constant harassment and the extortion spree of the Chinese against our fishermen,” Anakpawis Party-list Rep. Ariel Casilao said.
He said the incident was caught on video inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone in Bajo de Masinloc near Zambales. The video showed Chinese Coast Guards board up a Filipino fishing boat, rummage the boxes containing the catch of the poor fishers and take away some without permission.
“While the government allowed a People’s Liberation Army aircraft to refuel in Davao City, China repeatedly violates the rights of our fisher folk’s freedom of movement, depriving them of their sources of livelihood. These acts should be condemned. No self-respecting government would allow such demeaning and insulting acts against its citizens,” he added.
Alejano on Monday denied Cayetano’s claim that the country did not lose control of Sandy Cay to China.
“Sandy Cay has been in positive control of China since last year,” Alejano said. He said his source told him that Chinese ships have been permanently stationed near Sandy Cay, and challenged Cayetano to go with him to the area to know the situation firsthand.
“If Secretary Cayetano has strong belief that indeed we still control Sandy Cay, I challenge him for us to go there together with members of the media as witnesses. If we are not harassed or shooed away by the Chinese Coast Guard or the People’s Liberation Army Navy, then I will believe him,” Alejano said.
Alejano also slammed Cayetano’s accusations of spreading fake news regarding the patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
“My question to Secretary Cayetano is who has a history of lying to the public? Secretary Cayetano should take note that I have wide intelligence network even in his own department. He should get his script right,” Alejano said in a mix of English and Filipino.
“All the information on the West Philippine Sea that I have revealed so far in the public were later either confirmed by events on the ground or by independent monitoring of various concerned organizations. I do not invent stories,” he added.
He stood by his statement that the Place had ordered the AFP to stop conducting patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
“I am 100 percent sure on the information I received. It was relayed to me personally by a source which has the authority to say that,” he said.
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