A palace spokesman on Thursday described the actions of Chinese coast guards as “fish thievery,” and said the Philippines concedes nothing in terms of fishing rights in the Scarborough or Panatag shoal.
“For lack of a better word, let’s call it pangongotong in Tagalog, which is fish thievery,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said of the habit of Chinese coast guards to board Filipino fishing boats there and take part of their catch.
He also contested the term “barter” used by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua, who pointed out that the Filipino fishermen were given noodles, cigarets, and water in return.
“There’s a possibility given the language barrier that they consider it as a barter but from our point of view it is not,” Roque said.
Reacting to acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio’s warning that the Philippines could be giving up its rights to fish in Panatag Shoal after China declared that Filipino fishermen were allowed to fish there “out of goodwill,” Roque said the country concedes nothing.
He added that what is important is that fishermen are again able to enter the area and fish under the Duterte administration.
“We have communicated the fact that we view this to be wrong and the Chinese have said that they are looking into it. Let’s await the results of the investigation,” Roque said of the incidents involving the Chinese coast guards.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, meanwhile, said the Philippines cannot send it Coast Guard to the Panatag Shoal under a “tentative fishing agreement” with China.
Cayetano said that during the previous administration, the country lost control of the shoal and Filipino fishermen were not allowed to enter the area.
“We won’t solve our territorial dispute by positioning our Coast Guard ships there. The tough guy approach just won’t work,” Cayetano told the reporters in an ambush interview.
“Only their ships are inside. If we send a ship to go inside, for us it won’t be an aggressive act, but what will we do if they block us?” Cayetano said.
The row over Panatag Shoal began in April 2012, when China stopped the Philippines from arresting Chinese fishermen who were caught catching turtles and other protected marine life.
The standoff ended when then-President Benigno Aquino III pulled out Philippine vessels from the area because of bad weather.
Since the pullout, China has taken control of the shoal, Cayetano said.
Today, because Duterte has reached out to China, Filipino fishermen are allowed into Panatag again, he added.
In a Malacañang press conference on Monday, fisherman Rommel Sihuela confirmed that China has control over Panatag Shoal and said China “allows” them to fish there.
He also added that there are no Philippine Coast Guard vessels patrolling in the area.
Roque presented Sihuela and two other fishermen on Monday to describe the real state of Panatag Shoal.
Over the past years, China has claimed some of the features of the disputed South China Sea particularly the Philippine-owned-reefs-turned-islands in the Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratlys) where Beijing has installed weapon system in the region.
The reclamation in the South China Sea started when a standoff developed between the Philippines and China in 2012.
China’s activities over the disputed sea became more visible when the Philippines filed a case before the Arbitral Tribunal, which eventually ruled in favor of Manila in 2016 and declared Beijing’s 9-dash line claims as excessive and illegal.
China has refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the court and did not participate in any of its hearings.
Earlier, Carpio had warned that the Philippines may lose its legal rights to fish in Panatag Shoal if it accepts China’s assertion that it only allows Filipinos to fish there “out of goodwill.”
“I’m worried if we accept their narrative that it’s their goodwill, we will be giving up our legal right. We have a right to be there, whether they like it or not. Whether it’s goodwill or not, it is immaterial because the tribunal said it is a common fishing ground,” Carpio said, during a television interview over CNN Philippines.
“What the tribunal was saying is we are not ruling as to who owns the shoal because that’s a territorial dispute and we don’t have the jurisdiction over that. But we have jurisdiction over maritime disputes, which includes fishing rights,” the acting chief magistrate added.
Carpio also said Filipino fishermen are not being allowed by the Chinese to enter the lagoon to fish though Chinese fishermen are allowed by their Coast Guard personnel to do so.
Nonetheless, Carpio said the promise of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to conduct an investigation on Chinese Coast Guard personnel allegedly harassing Filipino fishermen by taking their catch and meeting sanctions if found guilty is a welcome development.
“They have promised to discipline their personnel and that it will not happen again. That’s a good start, but we should be careful that their premise is they are doing it out of goodwill,” he said.
Carpio also cautioned the government not to be totally awed by China’s promises of aid, loans, and investments, adding that the resources of the country’s exclusive economic zone, including the West Philippine Sea, is more than the value of these loans and investments.
In the same interview, Carpio vowed to pursue his aggressive stance on the country’s territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea that has been contrary to the position of the Duterte administration―even if it would cost his possible appointment as chief justice.
Fighting for the sovereignty of the country is more important than being appointed chief justice, he said.
“What is more important for the nation is that we preserve our sovereignty and sovereign rights because if we lose this, we lose that forever. That’s far more important than any position,” Carpio said.
“That’s far more important than the presidency. I mean, president[s] can come and go, but our sovereignty should remain forever with us,” he added.
Carpio said the government should file another arbitration case against China over the reported harassment of Filipino fishermen and destruction of coral reefs in Panatag, in violation of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.
He also said the administration should seek damages from China for the economic losses of Filipino fishermen.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, meanwhile, said if the government will not file a diplomatic protest over the harassment of Filipino fishermen, the least it can do is demand an apology.
“Our fishermen were robbed. Let’s take their side,” he said in Filipino.
Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon urged the Duterte administration to review its policy of appeasement of China, saying this did not translate into better economic and trade relations with China.
He said while Vietnam has been more aggressive in its dealings with China, it was ahead in terms of direct Chinese investments. In 2017, for example, the Philippines got only $31 million in direct Chinese investments while Vietnam had $2.17 billion.
This despite Vietnam’s aggressiveness and confrontational approach towards China over the issue of South China Sea, Drilon said.
On top of that, he said, China is far below the direct investments from Japan amounting to $600 million and the United States, amounting to $160 million.
Drilon also expressed dismay at the lower bilateral trade between the Philippines and China as compared with Vietnam and China. In 2017, bilateral trade between the Philippines and China was $21.94 billion, while those of Vietnam and China amounted to $71.85 billion.
“Therefore, this indicates that the appeasement of China does not necessarily result in better economic relations with China,” Drilon said.
“That indicates the non-connection between the policy of appeasement and economic benefits, as shown in Vietnam’s policy of confrontation which yielded more positive results,” he said.
Drilon also pointed out that the landing of a Chinese military aircraft in Davao sparked controversy.
“You have a Chinese military plane in Davao landing and the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and the secretary of DND [Department of National Defense] not even knowing about it? Isn’t that alarming? That is why we should be more assertive,” Drilon said.
In terms of Chinese tourist arrivals, the Philippines recorded 968,447 in 2017. In contrast, the Chinese tourist arrivals in Vietnam in 2017 was 4 million.
“I am citing Vietnam because the policy of Vietnam in terms of its relation with China is a complete opposite of our foreign policy thrust. And yet, they have four times more Chinese tourists; they have received more investment from China than what went to the Philippines,” he added.
Senator Richard Gordon, a Duterte ally, said if China is not a reliable ally and treating Filipinos as “enemies,” the Philippines may be forced to form alliances with Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand or the United States.
“You are not a reliable ally or a friend. We are not enemies of China but you are treating us as if we are interlopers in our own country,” Gordon said of the Chinese.
“Alliances are best seen by the actions of a people. You are not a reliable ally,” he added.
“That is an unfriendly act to Asia,” said Gordon. He said the Philippines should have the resolve to tell China that it will not be bullied.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, said he agreed with a Palace plan to hold diplomatic consultations with China instead of filing a new arbitration case for the destruction of coral reefs in Panatag Shoal.
When dealing with bilateral relations with any country, Lacson said there couldn’t be a better option than diplomacy.
“Filing a new arbitration case against China should only be resorted to as our second to the last and ultimate option, which is going to war,” he further said.
Senator Francis Escudero agreed.
“Do that first before another case. Even in ordinary lives, both parties first talk before the filing of charges,” he said.