MANILA – Malacañang on Wednesday said President Rodrigo Duterte may raise with Chinese President Xi Jinping the plight of Filipino fishermen who complained of being “harassed” by Chinese coast guard personnel at the Scarborough Shoal.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the President did not have to course the matter through diplomatic channels and went directly to the Chinese envoy in the Philippines, noting the chief executive himself would complain to Xi if given the chance.
“Hindi po namin kinukunsinti ang pangongotong ng isda sa ating mga kababayan, at ‘yan po’y pinarating na ng Presidente mismo natin ‘no sa kaalaman ng Ambassador ‘no. Hindi na po umasa ang Presidente sa diplomatic channels, at siya na po mismo ang nakipag-usap sa Ambahador,” Roque told state-run Radyo Pilipinas.
(We are not condoning these acts of harassment against Filipino fishermen. President Duterte himself brought the matter up with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua. He did not have to course the issue through diplomatic channels.)
“At kung may pagkakataon siguro eh didiretso na ni Presidente ‘yan kay President Xi ‘no dahil talaga namang hindi pupuwedeng inaapi ang ating mga kababayan, samantalang mayroon naman talagang kasunduan at tradisyunal nang ginagawa ng ating mga kababayan ‘yan sa tinatawag na ‘Borough o Scarborough po.”
(And if there will be a chance, President Duterte will go straight to President Xi because it’s not right that our fishermen are being mistreated, especially that there is an agreement between the Philippines and China and Scarborough is a traditional fishing ground.)
Concerns over renewed tension between China and the Philippines in the rich fishing ground grew last week after a television report showed the Chinese coast guard taking the catch of fishermen who pass by the shoal, located 124 nautical miles (229.65 kilometers) off Zambales.
The shoal under Chinese control lies within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Zhao said coast guard personnel involved in the incident would be disciplined “in accordance with our own regulations.”
“The investigation is being conducted by competent agencies and they have their own corresponding regulations,” Zhao told reporters on Tuesday.
“If there is any misconduct conducted by the Chinese coast guards, those individuals will be punished and the rules will be there.”
Zhao added that as a rule, “we do not allow Chinese coast guards to do whatever, to do anything that is harmful to the Filipino fishermen.”
Scarborough, called by Filipinos as Panatag Shoal and by the Chinese as Huangyan Island, was the site of a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China. The standoff erupted when Manila sent its biggest warship to chase off Chinese poachers.
China gained effective control of the shoal after Manila withdrew its vessel. It then started blocking Filipino fishermen from the shoal.
President Duterte’s overtures to Beijing lowered tensions in the area, with Xi himself promising to allow Filipino fishermen back into the rocky outcrop.
But fishermen say China continues to have control over the shoal, which was declared by a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in 2016 as a traditional fishing ground for both China and the Philippines.
Zhao met with Duterte during Independence Day rites in Kawit, Cavite on Tuesday, and the Chinese envoy said the President aired his concerns about the incident.
“In English there is a saying, ‘Even in the best regulated families, accidents happen.' So we always have bad apples but if we have bad apples, you know what I'm going to do, I'm going to throw into the South China Sea and feed to the fish,” Zhao said.
Zhao said the incident should be considered “isolated” and should not affect overall ties between the two Asian neighbors.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Wednesday urged Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano to take a tougher stance against China and formally file a protest over the incident.
"I think there’s enough evidence. Nasa media po ang nangyayari dun. Kaya siguro konting lakas loob naman at aking hinihiling kay Secretary [Alan Peter] Cayetano na mag-file ng protest," Drilon said in a statement.
(It was reported in the media. So maybe just a little courage and I ask Secretary Cayetano to file a protest.)
Filipino fishermen have sought government’s help in stopping Chinese coast guard personnel from taking their catch.
One of them, Romel Cejuela, said the Chinese would sometimes give water, cigarettes and instant noodles in exchange for their catch, but he said these were not enough to offset their loss.
There had been reports last year of an emerging “barter” system between Filipino fishermen and Chinese coast guard personnel, but it was only this year that the Filipinos complained.
The shoal is a potential flashpoint in the disputed sea, as maritime experts say Beijing is eyeing to build another artificial island there to fully cement its control of the vital waterway.
Manila has declared any Chinese reclamation on the shoal as a “red line.”