MANILA (3nd UPDATE) — The Philippines on Saturday said it was investigating reports that Chinese vessels chased a Filipino boat carrying fishermen and an ABS-CBN News crew in the West Philippine Sea earlier this week, an incident that happened amid tensions between Beijing and Manila over lingering Chinese presence in the area.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that if the report is confirmed, it would raise the matter with China.
"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.
In the same breath, the DFA urged the public to "coordinate with Philippine authorities when planning a visit to the Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea."
This echoed a statement by the military on Friday urging media to "exercise prudence" in reporting from the West Philippine Sea, saying it is "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 2 Chinese missile craft on April 8 as it traveled across reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 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.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said the chase can only be described as "territorial incursion."
He reiterated that the complaint should be brought to the United Nations.
"The incident squarely calls for a demarche that is direct, purposeful and pointed," said Del Rosario in a statement.
"Additionally, as I said earlier, the UN may be informed through the Secretary General. Such UN notification will form part of official Ph communications, including those required under Article 51 of the UN Charter relating to individual and collective self defense."
Del Rosario also suggested that the Philippines should revisit a joint patrol agreement of the West Philippine Sea as approved by approved by then Deputy Secretary Anthony Blinken.
"The agreement was not pursued by President Duterte as he was concerned that it would displease Beijing," said the former DFA secretary.
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.
On Wednesday, the DFA filed another diplomatic protest against China, vowing to do so every day until all Chinese ships have left the reef.
Malacañang, which has pursued friendlier ties with China despite the maritime dispute in exchange for investments and infrastructure funding, was mum on the matter, with the spokesman saying the Palace defers to the DFA and the defense chief.
China has been ramping up militarization and island-building activities in the resource-rich waterway, ignoring a 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated its expansive nine-dash line claim.
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” (2014 Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics) – a duty that transcends borders and meridian boundaries."
DIRECT CHINA THREAT TO CIVILIAN PH BOAT
A maritime expert, meanwhile, 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.
“Ngayon lang nangyari 'yan sa aking pagkakaalam at kahit ibang colleagues ko sa ibang bansa ay nagulat na ito nga ang ginamit nila para maghabol sa isang civilian vessel. Parang ngayon direkta nang nananakot ang China sa ating mga ordinary citizens,” said Prof. Jay Batongbacal, Director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the 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.)
He cited President Rodrigo Duterte's earlier statements that the Philippines had no match to Chinese military might in case the conflict escalates.
“Yan ang dahilan kung bakit tayo nasa ganitong sitwasyon, 'yung pagsasabi niya na wala tayong magagawa, na pinapayagan na lang niya ang China na mangisda dyan, etc.—all of that is the reason why nagagawa ng China ngayon ito,” said Batongbacal.
(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.)