MANILA (UPDATE) - Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Wednesday said China should shoulder the Philippine government's expenses in responding to the crisis wrought by the coronavirus disease, saying this is a way for Asia's largest economy to pay for destroying Philippine reefs in the disputed South China Sea.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which started in Wuhan, China, the Chinese continued its "land reclamation operations and illegal fishing activities in the West Philippine Sea," leading to more losses for the Philippines, Hontiveros said in a statement.
The West Philippine Sea is the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety.
"The government already has a huge budget deficit because of COVID-19. China's ongoing disregard for our own resources will worsen our economic standing," Hontiveros said in a statement.
"The government should demand what is rightfully ours and use this to help the Filipino people battle COVID-19," she said.
China's reclamation in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands has amounted to P33.1 billion in annual losses, according to data from the University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute.
"The destruction to our reefs in Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands is equivalent to at least PhP 33.1 billion in losses annually, on top of other economic and health costs," Hontiveros said.
"China should foot the Philippines' COVID-19 bill... This money is past due and could go to government's efforts in fighting the pandemic," she said.
China has “steadily” increased its presence in disputed portions of the South China Sea while claimant countries grappled with the global pandemic, US-based analyst Gregory Poling said last week.
"What is pretty obvious is China’s not gonna stop. If a global pandemic doesn’t cause China to calm things down in the South China Sea, there’s not much that will,” he told reporters in an online forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
"The numbers of Chinese boats are such that it’s getting harder and harder for Southeast Asian operators to go about their normal business. It is getting increasingly difficult for Filipino fishers to go out," he said.
The Philippine government "should also demand" for the P50 billion in unpaid taxes from Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) instead of allowing the industry to resume operations after the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon is lifted.
Prior to the global pandemic, several Senate investigations found that the Chinese-operated online gambling firms have not been paying their dues to the Philippine government, and have been trafficking casino workers and prostitutes into the country.
"POGOs are non-essential to the economy... Hindi na nga buo ang binabayad nilang tax, may korapsyon at sex trafficking pang pinapalaganap," Hontiveros said.
(Not only are they evading taxes, they are also spreading corruption and sex trafficking.)
"It's high time we send POGOs home," she said.
Malacañang earlier described POGOs as a "cash resource" that could be tapped for funds during the coronavirus crisis.
"So ang POGO po ay kabahagi po 'yan siguro ng isang industriya na nagbibigay ng cash resource sa Presidente, sa pamahalaan at ang tatanungin po natin ay ano ang risk na pinopose ng operation sa POGO?" Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in an online press briefing.
(POGOs are part of an industry that provides the President, and our government with cash resources. Our question will be what risks does the reopening of the POGO industry pose?)
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been forging closer ties with Beijing since he assumed presidency in 2016, is expected to unveil the government's latest COVID-19 policies on April 23.
The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines on Wendesday slammed Hontiveros' remarks as "ridiculously absurd and irresponsible."
"China and the Philippine are working closely to fight the common threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this trying time, it is ridiculously absurd and irresponsible to make such remarks for the sole purpose of catching eyeballs and for selfish political gains," its spokesperson said in a statement.
The Chinese embassy maintained that both countries "are friendly neighbors across the sea."
"China will continue to provide our support and assistance to the best of our ability to the Philippines, and stand together with the Philippine government and people to jointly tackle the challenges and tide over the difficulties," the spokesperson added.
The Chinese government has donated some 102,000 test kits, 400,000 surgical masks, 40,000 medical N95 masks, 15,000 medical protective suits, 5,000 medical face shields and 30 non-invasive ventilators.
A team of Chinese medical experts was also sent to the Philippines to assist in the country's response to the new coronavirus pandemic.