MANILA - Beijing and Manila "co-control" the Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Monday night amid reports of the Chinese coast guard's harassment of Filipino fishermen there.
"I believe, at this point in time, may co-control tayo, because malaya na tayo pumupunta," Cayetano told reporters.
(We have co-control because we can freely go there.)
A recent media report showed a cellphone video of Chinese coast guard seizing the catch of fishermen passing by Panatag, also known as Scarborough Shoal, located only 124 nautical miles off Zambales province.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, in a rare rebuke, asked China last week to stop its officers from doing so. However, he also refused to describe the incident as harassment, saying the Chinese Coast Guard gave Filipino fishermen noodles, cigarettes and water in exchange for their catch.
Cayetano said the situation in Panatag has been "much better" under President Rodrigo Duterte's term compared to the previous administration, when Filipino fishermen had no access to the resource-rich area.
"Definitely, when President Duterte came in, it was controlled by the Chinese. Now, we can use semantics, puwede tayong mag-debate: how much control do we have, how much hindi control?" the top diplomat said.
"But ang masasabi ko lang, our situation now is much, much better than 2 years ago," he added.
The government, he said, wants "total control" of Panatag, but this would take lengthy negotiations.
"China does not expect us to change our position, so why would we expect them to already change their position right away?" he said.
For now, one option would be for China to ban its coast guard from having any contact with Filipino fishermen. This, however, would also prevent Filipinos from getting Chinese assistance in emergencies or engaging in barter, said Cayetano.
"The best thing to do is to find a protocol that is acceptable to both Philippines and China, but not to politicize the issue," he said.
China in 2012 seized control of Panatag, following a 3-month standoff after a Philippine Navy vessel tried to arrest Chinese fishermen found illegally hauling giant clams there.
In 2016, a UN-backed court invalidated China's sweeping historic claims to the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually.
Beijing, however, snubbed the ruling while President Rodrigo Duterte refused to flaunt the arbitral award, seeking instead Chinese investments and aid from Beijing, as he moved away from the US, Manila's longtime ally.
China in May reportedly deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on the Spratly Islands and flew nuclear-capable bombers to a base in another disputed part of the sea.
Duterte's aides have said previously the Philippines is taking "all diplomatic action" to protect its claims while insisting it would not anger China by engaging in "megaphone diplomacy."
With a report from Vivienne Gulla, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse