MANILA— Vice President Leni Robredo said Friday she was enraged and heartbroken that a Filipino vessel was driven out by Chinese ships inside the West Philippine Sea.
"When you watch the video, nakakagalit, nakakadurog ng puso na nangyayari 'yon (it's infuriating and heartbreaking that it's happening) within our territory," she told ANC's "Headstart".
Chinese ships, including missile-capable boats, on Thursday chased down the Filipino vessel near Ayungin Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, where China lays claim to nearly 90 percent of the waters. Several of its ships have lingered in the area.
The vessel, with the ABS-CBN News team aboard, was traveling across various reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea to check the livelihood of Filipino fishermen affected by the presence of Chinese vessels in the area.
The incident came as Philippine officials demanded the withdrawal of the Chinese ships in Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef), with a retired Supreme Court judge warning their presence may be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base as China did on Mischief Reef in 1995.
On Wednesday, the Philippine foreign ministry filed another diplomatic protest against China, vowing to do so every day, as a Chinese maritime militia fleet remained in the West Philippine Sea.
While the strongly-worded statements of the Department of National Defense and Department of Foreign Affairs against China's latest incursion have brought some comfort, Robredo said she couldn't help but express concern for the safety of Filipino fishermen in the area.
"'Yong takot na dinadala ng mga mangingisda natin every day of their lives when this is an area where they have every right to fish. Tapos, itataboy sila ng gano'n. Parang nakakaano siya, very heartbreaking," she said.
(The fear that our fishermen have to carry every day of their lives when this is an area where they have every right to fish. Then, they are driven away like that. It's very heartbreaking.)
Robredo said the Philippine government could invoke the landmark 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea.
"One of the things we could have done since 2016 was to use the decision of the ruling, to team up with all the other neighboring countries who are going through the same struggles. Parang to use the ruling to be able to have a stronger position," she said.
The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the contested waters.
"Parati kasi natin sinasabi na hindi natin sila kaya kasi maliit lang tayo. Pero 'pag nagsama-sama tayo lahat, mas malakas tayo (We always say we can't stand up to them because we are small. But if we band together, we are stronger). I think it's one of the areas where we have not, it’s an opportunity we have not taken advantage of. We have not maximized," Robredo said.
Up to 220 vessels were first monitored at Julian Felipe Reef, the largest feature in the Pagkakaisa Bank, on March 7. While the number has gone down to 44 during the last surveillance on March 29, several other Chinese ships were also monitored in other features in the West Philippine Sea, according to a government task force.
Chinese officials had denied allegations the ships moored at Julian Felipe Reef are part of Beijing's militia, describing those as fishing vessels taking shelter due to “rough sea conditions.” The Philippine foreign ministry said the claim is among China's "blatant falsehoods."
The United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have criticized China's incursions in the West Philippine Sea.