MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Filipino fishermen were reportedly harassed by the Chinese coast guard at the Union Bank, a territory within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but also claimed by China.
A congressman on Thursday urged the government to file a strong diplomatic protest against China for firing warning shots to drive Filipino fishermen away from Union Bank, in the heavily disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, who has filed an impeachment complaint against President RodrigoDuterte for his defeatist stance in the South China Sea dispute, urged the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to demand an explanation and an apology from China for the incident.
In a statement, Alejano condemned “in the strongest terms” the “aggressive acts” of the Chinese Coast Guard, which reportedly fired warning shots to prevent the Filipinos from fishing in Union Bank.
Within PH economic zone
One of five regions in the Spratly archipelago, Union Bank is located 230 kilometers west of the Philippine coast, well within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Alejano said.
A large, drowned atoll in the center of the Spratly archipelago, Union Bank has about 20 reefs whose ownership is disputed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China occupies Union Bank, and has built artificial islands on three of the reefs there, all claimed by the Philippines—Mabini Reef (internationally known as Johnson South Reef), Gavin Reef (Gaven Reef) and McKennan Reef (Hughes Reef).
Television reports on Wednesday said the Chinese Coast Guard drove away Filipino fishermen from Mariveles town, Bataan province, from Union Bank on April 9.
The report quoted some of the fishermen as saying the Chinese Coast Guard fired six warning shots to force them to turn around.
Gen. Eduardo Año, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, on Thursday said the incident was under investigation.
He said the military had received sketchy reports of the incident, which happened near Gavin Reef.
Año said authorities were trying to locate the fishermen, believed to have returned to land, who had been encouraged to report to police or Coast Guard officials.
Alejano said the actions of the Chinese Coast Guard “constitute[d] a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity that we must all protect and defend.”
The incident warrants a strong response from the Philippines, he said.
Alejano urged the DFA to “file a strong diplomatic protest against China and demand an explanation and [an] apology” for the incident.
“Once and for all, let us assert our rights by concrete actions … Otherwise, other countries, particularly China, will continue to abuse and disrespect us as a country,” he said.
Still verifying report
The DFA, however, had yet to verify the harassment report.
“We are currently verifying this report with our security agencies,” DFA spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said in a statement on Thursday.
Bolivar gave assurance that once it had confirmed the report, the DFA would raise the matter with Chinese officials in a meeting next month.
Last year, the Philippines won a judgment from the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in a challenge to China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea.
The tribunal invalidated China’s claim, declaring that it had no basis in international law and saying it had violated the Philippines’ right to fish and explore for resources in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s EEZ in the South China Sea.
China rejected the ruling, insisting it had “undisputed sovereignty” over the South China Sea but offering a settlement with its rivals through bilateral negotiations.
Instead of asserting the Philippine victory, President Duterte, who was elected last year, set it aside, saying the country was no match for China’s military might.
A self-styled socialist, Mr. Duterte made friendly overtures to China and visited Beijing in October to begin repairing relations that had been frayed by the Philippine arbitral action.
Alejano filed an impeachment complaint against Mr. Duterte last month, alleging the President betrayed public trust and violated the Constitution by refusing to challenge China on its incursions into Philippine territory in the South China Sea.