MANILA — Malacañang said on Thursday it was a "big deal" that Filipinos are able to earn their living at China-occupied Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea under President Rodrigo Duterte's administration—even if a fisherman said Beijing would at times shoo them away.
Duterte this week said his 2016 campaign promise to ride a jet ski to Scarborough and challenge Chinese aggression was a "pure joke" and that those who believed it were "stupid."
Carlo Montehermozo, the fisherman to whom he told the statement in a pre-election debate, said Duterte was "a joke of a President."
Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque asked Montehermozo, "Carlo, unang-una ang tanong, nakakapag-hanapbuhay ka ba ngayon?"
(The first question is, can you earn a living now?)
"Hindi ba totoo na ang noong mga panahon ng administrasyong Aquino kung saan tayo po ay palaaway sa Tsina, iyon po ang mga panahon na hindi kayo nakapangingisda sa 'Borough," Roque said in a press briefing.
"'Wag po nating kakalimutan na kung hindi po nabago ang polisiya natin sa Tsina, hindi pa rin po kayo makakapangisda."
(Is it not true that during the Aquino administration, when we were aggressive towards China, that was the time you could not fish at Scarborough? Let us no forget that if our policy towards China was not changed, you still would not be able to fish there.)
Montehermozo told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo on Wednesday that during the previous administration, the Chinese coast guard would threaten Filipino fishermen at Scarborough (Bajo de Masinloc) with water cannons almost daily. He said this eased up during the early days of the Duterte administration.
"Pero noong mga katagalan na ulit, medyo parang sinusumpong siguro sila, nagpapaalis na naman," said the fisherman, who disclosed that he had voted for Duterte in 2016.
(But after some time, maybe when they have tantrums, they drive us away again.)
However, Roque said, "Ang punto po dati ni hindi sila makapunta sa Bajo de Masinloc. Malaking bagay po ‘yan, wag po nating i-deny ‘yan."
(The point is they allow you to go Bajo de Masinloc. That is a big deal, let us not deny that.)
Beijing has ignored an arbitral ruling— which stemmed from a case filed by the Aquino government in 2013— that junked its claims to almost the entire South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
"Wala rin naman pong mga Tsinong nakapangingisda sa lagoon, bagama't meron din silang karapatan mangisda sa lagoon. Pero ang isda naman po, wala namang pinipili ‘yan," said Roque.
(There are no Chinese fishermen anyway at that lagoon, though they have a right to fish there. The fish do not choose anyone.)
He added that championing sovereignty does not equate to going to war.
"Kalimutan po natin iyong mga pula ng lahat kasi panahon na po ng eleksyon. Ginagawa talaga nilang election issue," Roque said.
(Let us forget the criticism because it is election time. Our critics are making that an election issue.)
Ties between Beijing and Manila thawed under Duterte, who refused to press China to follow the arbitral ruling as he wooed investments and loans from the economic superpower.
However, the maritime dispute flared in March over the presence of over 200 Chinese vessels inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Duterte has since blamed the Aquino administration for the loss of Scarborough, and said the arbitral ruling was a "paper" victory.