MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday downplayed the Chinese Coast Guard’s move to get the prized catch of Filipino fishermen at the Scarborough Shoal, even as Filipino fishermen seek the government’s help in stopping the abusive practice of the Chinese.
Concerns over renewed tension between China and the Philippines in the rich fishing ground grew earlier this month 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.
The President, however, downplayed the incident and insisted it was a form of “barter”.
He said it was unfortunate that the Chinese coast guardsmen and the Filipino fishermen had a problem in determining the value of the catch and the items they had exchanged.
Filipino fishermen earlier complained that their catch, worth thousands of pesos, would sometimes be seized by the Chinese in exchange for a few pieces of bottled water, packs of cigarettes, and instant noodles.
“Ang problema ang valuation….It was not an outright seizure,” Duterte said in a speech during the 120th anniversary of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City.
The Philippines has complained to China over the incident, but Manila has refused to blow the incident out of proportion and called it “small” compared to the overall ties of the two Asian neighbors.
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said the coast guard personnel involved in the incident will 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.
In his speech, the President again stressed that he cannot fight China over the disputed South China Sea, as the Asian giant is “no pushover.”
“You cannot scare him (China). Even the US has show a little bit of apprehension about it...If you go against China, Russia will join the fray,” he said.
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.”