MANILA – The Philippines may file a diplomatic protest against China if authorities confirm that the Chinese Navy was responsible for firing shots at Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea last month.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said this Tuesday as the military continued to verify the reported harassment, the latest incursion attributed to the Chinese in the contested waters.
In a briefing in Malacañang, Padilla said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was looking into the report, and that the military was also conducting an investigation into the incident bared by Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano.
“If it is determined that indeed it is the Chinese Navy and not the Coast Guard, then appropriate protest through the diplomatic channels will have to be given out,” Padilla said.
The lawmaker, a former Marine who has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s perceived softness towards China, earlier told ANC that it was the Chinese Navy, not the Chinese Coast Guard, which shot at Bataan fishermen near Union Banks.
The reef is located in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea
If validated, the reported harassment by the Chinese Navy may ruffle improving ties between Manila and Beijing under President Duterte.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has endeavored to improve the country's ties with China, going gentle on the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea despite ramped up Chinese militarization and reclamation efforts in the contested waters.
The President has also decided to downplay Manila’s arbitration win against China over the South China Sea, much to the dismay of officials from the Aquino administration, which had initiated the legal action.
The landmark ruling invalidated China's nine-dash line claim over almost all of the South China Sea. Beijing has continued to ignore the arbitration ruling, asserting "indisputable sovereignty" over the waters.
But amid Duterte's amiable stance, China has loosened its grip on rich fishing grounds in the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) located just off Masinloc, Zambales. Beijing had seized control of the shoal in 2012 following a tense standoff with Manila.
Padilla meanwhile defended the visit of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorezana and the military's top brass to Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) last week, which China has criticized.
“The arbitral ruling has been made. The international court has decided on it. And I don’t see that we should doubt whatever that ruling is,” he said.
“Whatever we did in the island of Pag-asa was rightfully an act that we did," he said.