MANILA — Malacañang spokesman Harry Roque said on Thursday he would go to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) of his own accord, and not because of a dare for him to visit the area over reports of Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen there.
Fishers group Pamalakaya said at least 2 Chinese coast guard vessels have been preventing Filipino fishers from entering and seeking shelter at Panatag, located some 124 nautical miles from the mainland of Zambales province and is within the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Roque, in a press briefing, showed supposed photos of fishermen at Panatag on Wednesday, accompanied by the coast guard.
"Malinaw na malinaw, nakapangingisda po ang ating mga kababayan," he said.
(It is very clear, our compatriots can fish there.)
"Hindi ko po kinakailangan ng kahit sinong humamon. Matagal ko na pong gustong pumunta doon," added the Palace official.
(No one needs to challenge me. I have wanted to go there for a long time.)
He told a Presidential Communications undersecretary to "arrange our trip to Bajo de Masinloc and to Kalayaan." Bajo de Masinloc is the Spanish name for Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, while the Kalayaan Island Group is also within the disputed waters.
While Roque did not specify when he would visit the shoal, he said, "Bago matapos ang termino ni Presidente, sana magkaroon po ng katuparan. Pero pupunta po ako d'yan dahil gusto kong pumunta, hindi dahil may paghahamon ng kahit sino."
(Before the President's term ends, I hope this will have fruition. But I will go there because I want to, not because somebody dared me to.)
His boss, the President, had said during the 2016 campaign that he would ride a jet ski to the disputed waters and lay the country's stake against China. Earlier this year, President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued friendly ties with Beijing, said that was a joke.
WHAT FISHERMEN SAID
It has been 5 years since a United Nations-backed court junked Beijing's historical claims to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea, an area that covers the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
But critics say the Philippines has done little else to press its claim under Duterte, who has made the relationship with China a key part of his foreign policy and said it is "inutile" to try to challenge its vastly bigger neighbor.
In just one incident in March, the Philippines complained of incursions by what it said were more than 200 Chinese militia vessels into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from its coast.
Filipino fisherman Randy Megu told Reuters his encounters with Chinese boats are more frequent than ever.
"I was so scared," said Megu, describing how a Chinese vessel had tracked his wooden outrigger boat for three hours some 260 kms from the coast in May.
He said other fishermen had reported being rammed or blasted with water cannons while working in what they considered their historic fishing grounds— which they had hoped to secure after the ruling in The Hague in 2016.
China's foreign ministry reiterated on Friday that Beijing did not accept the ruling nor any claims or actions based on it. China lays claim to most of the waters within a so-called 9-dash line, which is contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Chinese fishing vessels operating in the area are doing so in line with domestic and international law, the foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters, adding they are not subject to China's annual summer fishing moratorium, which runs until Aug. 16.
"The data here is very clear," said Greg Poling of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Chinese Coast Guard ships and the militia are in the Philippines' EEZ more than they were five years ago."
A July 2020 opinion poll showed that 70 percent of Filipinos want the government to assert its claim in the South China Sea.
"We firmly reject attempts to undermine it; nay, even erase it from law, history and our collective memories," Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said in a statement last month.
The country has made 128 diplomatic protests over China's activities in contested waters since 2016, and coast guard and bureau of fisheries vessels have conducted "sovereign" patrols in the Philippines' EEZ.
Before his election in 2016, Duterte had said he would stand up for his country's claims in the South China Sea.
He is due to step down at the end of his single 6-year term next year, but talk that he could be vice president or be succeeded by his daughter have raised doubts that policies will change.
The fishermen of Pangasinan see little hope of a challenge to the Chinese vessels that now dictate their movements.
"Now, it is as if we are the ones stealing from our own backyard," said 51-year old fisherman Christopher de Vera.
— With reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Reuters