MANILA - A youth group marked the Philippines' Independence Day on Friday with a petition demanding that China pay P200 billion for damaging reefs in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
China, which has been building artificial islands and militarizing shoals in the disputed waters, including parts of the West Philippine Sea, should "move out" and "pay up," opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in an online protest where the signature campaign - started by Akbayan Youth on change.org - was launched.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, resource rich waters that China claims in near entirety.
"Ang mga Pilipino naman ngayon ang naniningil sa China," said Hontiveros, who has led several Senate hearings on alleged illegal activities involving Chinese-run online gambling firms in the Philippines.
(Filipinos are now the ones asking China to pay their debt.)
"[We] Filipinos will continue to uphold our victory against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and protect our nation’s independence and sovereignty," the senator said, referring to the July 2016 international court ruling that invalidated China's sweeping claims in the waters.
"We are demanding an audit of your damages in the West Philippine Sea for the last 7 years and ask you to pay at least P200 billion pesos in reparations," she said.
The amount being asked from China is based on a University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute study that showed that Beijing's reclamation in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands has amounted to P33.1 billion in annual losses.
While the Philippines is celebrating its 122nd Independence Day, Filipinos are still not free from Chinese incursions and abuses in the West Philippine Sea, Hontiveros said.
"Ramdam natin na pilit pa rin tayong kinukulong... ng China na sinasamantala tayo sa kabila ng pandemiya - na patuloy ang incursions sa West Philippine Sea at pagpapatayo ng mga research stations sa ating mga isla," she said.
(We still feel that we are not free... China took advantange of the pandemic to continue its incursions in the West Philippine Sea and construct research stations on our islands.)
The petition was launched a few days after the Philippines and China marked 45 years of diplomatic ties, where Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. reaffirmed relations between the two sides.
"Real friends do not occupy each other’s islands. Real friends do not violate each other’s sovereignty," Hontiveros said.
"Filipinos will not cower to China. Filipinos will not back down," she said.
In April, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines described Hontiveros' demand for reparation as "ridiculously absurd and irresponsible."
"China and the Philippines 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.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario earlier said the Philippine government can "seize" China's assets as payment for the damaged reefs in Philippine waters.
"Philippine authorities have the right to seize assets and properties owned by Chinese state in the Philippines to satisfy China's debt to the Filipino people once China's full monetary damages are determined," said Del Rosario, who led a team that brought China before an arbitration court in 2013 amid Beijing's continuing incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
"China can be held accountable here in our country and our Philippine government needs to stand up for Filipinos," he said.
Amid the unresolved maritime dispute, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer ties with Asia's largest economy to help fund his administration's billions-worth infrastructure program.