Allegations of harassment of Filipino fishermen by the Chinese Coast Guard at the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal had returned to the limelight, prompting the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to advise the fishermen to avoid sailing to the area.
In an interview on Super Radyo dzBB, beamed nationwide, BFAR National Director Eduardo Gongona said the fishermen should keep away from the area, both separately disputed by the Philippines and China.
Gongona told the fishermen to concentrate on the country’s municipal waters to check what could be a rising tension between Manila and Beijing.
This followed a purported campaign video of senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares which was circulated online, discussing the alleged harassment against Filipino fishermen by the Chinese Coast Guard.
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo earlier urged those behind the documentary to show proof of the harassment before the Philippine government could file a diplomatic protest.
The Northern Luzon Command has since clarified that “there were no reports of Filipino fishermen being subjected to the said attack of Chinese water cannons, and so far, there were no sightings of dredging ships in the waters of Bajo De Masinloc or in the West Philippine Sea.”
The alleged harassment may be raised by President Rodrigo Duterte during his upcoming visit to Beijing next month, the Palace had said on Wednesday.
In an interview on ANC, heard nationwide, Panelo said: “I think he (Duterte) will raise that as an issue during the visit [to China]. The President immediately raises issues like that, but not in a way that he’d seem to be running amok.”
In November 2018, the President strengthened the country’s bilateral relations with Beijing.
Upon the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the President will attend the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in China in April.
Panelo has previously maintained the Philippine government will “definitely” protest the supposed harassment of Filipino fishermen once proven true.
“As far as I know, (Chinese) ambassador Zhao Jianhua told me that the fishermen there are not being harassed. Now if there is a violation, then we will have to go back to them and say, ‘Hey, they say there’s a violation, you better stop it’,” Panelo said in a Palace press briefing Monday.
“The policy is always, ‘You cannot be harassing our fishermen’,” he added.
Beijing and Manila have previously agreed to let fishermen freely navigate the disputed waters except for marine protected areas.
However, this was not the first time that reports of alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen have been raised. In fact, it was reported a number of times in recent months, including an incident where the Chinese Coast Guard drove away a local television crew from Panatag Shoal.
In November 2018, the President called on China, including Southeast Asian leaders who are claimant of the contested waters, to practice “self-restraint” in dealing with the resource-filled seas in order to “avoid actions that may further complicate situations.”
Asean countries and China have also discussed the creation of a binding Code of Conduct to address tensions in the West Philippine Sea. The code, however, is set to be finalized in three years.