MANILA - Malacañang on Thursday said the Philippines is not conceding its rights over Scarborough Shoal, after a Chinese official raised eyebrows when he said Beijing was allowing Filipino fishermen in the area “out of goodwill.”
“We do not concede and I cannot answer anything in that regard because we would have to ask the Chinese authorities,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said when asked to respond to an earlier statement of Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang.
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 taking the catch of Filipino fishermen who pass by the shoal, located only 124 nautical miles (229.65 kilometers) off Zambales and is within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Philippines has complained to China over the incident, but Manila showed restraint, calling it “small” compared to overall ties of the two Asian neighbors.
Roque said that despite the incident, it is important to note that Filipino fishermen now have access to the shoal, unlike the situation under the previous administration.
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said the coast guard personnel involved in the incident would be disciplined “in accordance with our own regulations.”
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 Duterte’s overtures to Beijing lowered the tension in the area, with Xi himself promising to allow Filipino fishermen back into the rocky outcrop.
But fishermen say China continues to have control over the shoal despite the decision of a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal in 2016 which declared it as a traditional fishing ground for both China and the Philippines.
Filipino fishermen have sought the government’s help in stopping Chinese coast guard personnel from taking their catch. One of them, Romel Cejuela, said the Chinese would sometimes give water, cigarettes and instant noodles 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 guard personnel, but it was only this year that the Filipinos were able to vent their complaint.
The shoal is a potential flashpoint in the disputed waters, 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 that any Chinese reclamation on the shoal would be a “red line.”