The Department of Foreign Affairs said Saturday it “would raise the matter with China” if reports of Chinese military vessels chasing away a Filipino boat carrying fishermen and an ABS-CBN television news crew in the West Philippine Sea earlier this week were confirmed.
The DFA issued the statement amid escalating tensions in the contested South China Sea after Manila lodged a protest about a large number of Chinese vessels massed at Whitsun Reef, a feature in the Spratly Islands that is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but has other claimants including Beijing.
The increased presence of China’s coastguard near islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Japan, and Beijing’s increasing “grey zone” warfare tactics against Taiwan, are among the other points of contention.
“Philippine authorities are looking into reports of Chinese vessels chasing after a television crew aboard a Philippine vessel in the West Philippine Sea. If proven to be true, the Department of Foreign Affairs will raise the matter with the Chinese government,” the foreign office said.
“In the meantime, the Department is thankful that the crew and the Filipino vessel are safe,” it said.
The DFA also urged the public to “coordinate with Philippine authorities when planning a visit to the Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.”
This underlined a statement by the military on Friday, urging the media to “exercise prudence” in reporting from the West Philippine Sea, saying it was “concerned” for everyone’s well-being.
The ABS-CBN News team was in coordination with the military leadership throughout the trip.
The Filipino fishing vessel, with an ABS-CBN News crew on board, was tailed by two Chinese missile craft on April 8 as it traveled across reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea, the country’s exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea, close to the mainland of Palawan.
GPS coordinates indicated that the Filipino vessel was only 90 nautical miles from mainland Palawan, following a straight path home when the missile boats chased it down.
The incident happened as Philippine officials demanded the withdrawal of Chinese ships in Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, the country’s EEZ in the South China Sea which China claims in near entirety.
‘Against international law’
In a statement, journalism professors at the University of the Philippines said China’s action against the Filipino vessel was against international law, calling on the DFA to file a fresh protest.
“Whether or not China was aware of the presence of the ABS-CBN crew on coverage, the unprovoked threat of the use of force against an unarmed civilian vessel is prohibited under the United Nations Charter and customary international law,” read a statement issued Saturday.
“We call on the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest condemning in no uncertain terms the unprovoked threatening naval military maneuver made by the PLA Navy of China against a Philippine civilian vessel within the Philippine EEZ and while said Philippine vessel was already headed for Palawan,” they said.
They also urged media organizations to “provide full, contextualized coverage of the massive military buildup in the West Philippine Sea as part of our first duty as journalists to ‘ be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information’ -- a duty that transcends borders and meridian boundaries.”
Meanwhile, a maritime expert expressed alarm not only over the presence of Chinese navy vessels in the Philippines’ EEZ, but more so because they chased a civilian Filipino boat in the West Philippine Sea.
“As far as I know this is the first time that it happened and even my colleagues abroad were shocked that they used this to chase a civilian vessel. Now, it’s like China is directly intimidating ordinary citizens,” said Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
He cited President Rodrigo Duterte’s earlier statements that the Philippines had no match to Chinese military might in case the conflict escalated.
“That’s the reason why we’re in this situation, his statements that we can’t do anything, that he’s allowing China to fish there, etc.— all of that is the reason why China is able to do this now.”