MANILA - China will take action against Chinese coast guard personnel who took the catch of Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said Tuesday.
Concerns over renewed tension between China and the Philippines in the rich fishing ground grew last week after a television report showed the Chinese coast guard getting the catch of fishermen who pass by the shoal, located only 124 nautical miles off Zambales.
Zhao said the coast guard personnel involved in the incident will be disciplined “in accordance with our own regulations.”
“The investigation is being conducted by competent agencies and they have their own corresponding regulations,” Zhao told reporters.
“If there is any misconduct conducted by the Chinese coast guards, those individuals will be punished and the rules will be there.”
Zhao added that as a rule, “we do not allow Chinese coast guards to do whatever, to do anything that is harmful to the Filipino fishermen.”
Scarborough, called by Filipinos as Panatag Shoal and by the Chinese as Huangyan Island, was the site of a 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China. The standoff erupted when Manila sent its biggest warship to chase off Chinese poachers.
China gained effective control of the shoal after Manila withdrew its vessel. It then started blocking Filipino fishermen from the shoal.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to Beijing lowered the tension in the area, with Chinese President Xi Jinping himself promising to allow Filipino fishermen back into the rocky outcrop.
But fishermen say China continues to have control over the shoal, which was declared by a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in 2016 as a traditional fishing ground for both China and the Philippines.
Zhao met with Duterte during the Independence Day rites in Kawit, Cavite on Tuesday, and the Chinese envoy said the President aired his concerns about the incident.
“In English there is a saying, ‘Even in the best regulated families, accidents happen.' So we always have bad apples but if we have bad apples, you know what I'm going to do, I'm going to throw into the South China Sea and feed to the fish,” Zhao said.
Zhao said the incident should be considered “isolated” and should not affect the overall ties of the two Asian neighbors.
Filipino fishermen have sought the government’s help in stopping Chinese coast guard personnel from getting their catch. One of them, Romel Cejuela, said the Chinese would sometimes give water, cigarettes and food in exchange for their catch, but he said these were not enough to offset their loss.
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.
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.”