MANILA - China still has a strong grip on Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), Filipino fishermen said Monday, even as Malacañang insists that the situation in the rich fishing ground has improved since President Duterte came to power.
Concerns over a renewed tension between China and the Philippines in the rich fishing ground grew last week after a television report showed Chinese coast guard personnel getting the catch of fishermen who pass by the shoal, located only 124 nautical miles off Zambales.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque has downplayed the incident in the rocky outcrop, refusing to label it as “harassment.”
Roque said no formal protest is needed against China since Manila and Beijing enjoy friendly ties under Duterte. He noted that since the President assumed power in 2016, Filipino fishermen were again allowed to fish in shoal following years of Chinese blockade under the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III, who hailed China to a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal.
The tribunal invalidated China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea and declared that both the Philippines and China have “traditional fishing rights” to the shoal.
But Filipino fishermen from Masinloc town in Zambales said China remains to have control over the shoal, dictating the movement of vessels with its fleet of coast guard ships in the area.
Romel Cejuela said Chinese coast guard personnel continue to block access of bigger Filipino fishing vessels to the shoal’s lagoon, where most of the best marine resources in the area can be caught.
He said Filipinos are still allowed by the Chinese to enter the lagoon, but only using smaller fishing boats. He said this was not the case when he started fishing in Scarborough in early 2000s.
The Philippine coast guard, in contrast, has no ships in the area, Cejuela said during a press briefing with Roque.
Cejuela, however, said the absence of Filipino authorities in the shoal may be better after all, as he said another standoff between the two countries might trigger China to bar Filipino fishermen from the area once again.
“Mabigat sa kalooban kaya pilit mong tanggapin kasi sila ang may power ngayon d'yan,” Cejuela said.
(It’s against our will but we have to accept that since they are the ones who have power over the area.)
CIGARETTES, NOODLES IN EXCHANGE FOR FISH
Cejuela also sought government help in stopping Chinese coast guard personnel from getting their catch. He said some Chinese coast guard personnel would sometimes give water, cigarettes and food in exchange for their catch, but he said these were not enough to offset their loss.
“Sometimes I would sit over the cooler where my best catch is stored. The Chinese coast guard personnel would ask me to move,” Cejuela said.
Added Roque: "Kada kinukuhanan sila ng isda, bibigyan sila ng noodles, sigarilyo at pinakaimportante, tubig, dahil parati silang nagkukulang sa tubig.
(Everytime the Chinese coast guard get the fish from Filipino fishermen, they would exchange it with noodles, cigarettes and, more importantly, water, because they are always running out of water.)
There had been reports last year of an emerging “barter” system between Filipino fishermen and Chinese coast guardsmen, but it was only this year that the Filipinos lamented that they were on the losing end of this system.
Roque said the situation where the Chinese controls access to the lagoon is still better compared to what it was under the previous administration, where Filipino fishermen were totally barred from entering the shoal and sometimes chased away by Chinese coast guard water canons. He added this practice would also help prevent “overfishing” in the area.
He also described the actions of the “rotten” Chinese coast guard personnel as a “small incident” that should not affect the overall ties of the Philippines and China.
“China should discipline its rotten coast guard personnel. This is not acceptable, [but] I would not say it was harassment. You know what harassment is? During the time of President Aquino,” Roque said.
He added the Chinese coast guard’s actions do not represent Beijing’s official policy, citing the promise of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Duterte to finally allow Filipino fishermen to harvest from the shoal.
Scarborough was the site of a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China, when Manila sent its biggest warship to chase off Chinese poachers. China then gained effective control of the shoal after Manila withdrew its vessel. It then started blocking Filipino fishermen from the shoal.
The Chinese blockade was one of the reasons the Philippines went to the arbitral tribunal. Roque, then an activist lawyer, also helped fishermen like Cejuela file a complaint against China before the United Nations.
The shoal is a potential flashpoint in the disputed sea, as maritime experts say Beijing is eyeing to build another artificial island there to fully cement its control of the vital waterway.
Manila has declared any Chinese reclamation on the shoal as a “red line.”