By Ralph Villanueva/Manila Times
The Foreign Affairs department has formally protested China’s reported mass harvesting of giant clams at the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which Malacanang has called as an “affront” to the Philippines.
A television news report by ABS-CBN showed Filipino fishers saying Chinese boats had been doing clam extraction at Panatag “for years,” clouding the waters and affecting their fish catch.
In a news briefing, Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Chinese move was “definitely” a breach of the Philippines’ sovereignty. “It is surely a violation of our sovereignty…If it’s our territory, therefore, it is an affront to our territory and to our sovereignty,” he said.
In a related development, a group of Filipino fishers sought a Writ of Kalikasan from the Supreme Court on Tuesday, to compel the government to protect the disputed islands.
Panelo, however, noted that China was only being consistent with its claim on the whole West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). “We have to be consistent with ours. As far as we’re concerned, that is ours, we will be objecting to any intrusion to our own territory,” he said.
Panatag is considered a traditional fishing ground of Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese fishers, but falls within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. China seized control of the shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippines.
Earlier in the day, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin J said the Philippines had filed a diplomatic note with China regarding the TV news report.
In a tweet, Locsin also said the Philippines was mulling legal action against China. “It is with our legal department now,” he said. The report came a few weeks after Chinese vessels were spotted around the Philippine-controlled Pagasa (Thitu) Island and Kota (Loaita) Island in the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group.
Panelo earlier told the Chinese vessels to “go away” from the islands because “they do not have any business there.”
Duterte had also said China should “lay off” Pagasa Island.
Former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales last month filed a communication against Chinese President Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court for “implementing a “systematic plan to control” the contested sea and violating the rights of Filipino fishers.
Last week, Panelo invoked for the first time the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration siding with the Philippines in the sea dispute and junking China’s claims. Panelo on Tuesday said it would be up to Duterte if he would tap the United States’ help over the maritime dispute.
Chinese fishing vessels continue to roam around the Kalayaan Island Group, the military’s Western Command (WesCom) said. Vice Admiral Rene Medina, commander of the Palawan-based WesCom, said Chinese vessels were circling not just at Pa-asa, but other islands in the Spratly archipelago.
Medina did not specify all of the Philippine-occupied islands and reefs surrounded by Chinese vessels, but replied in the affirmative when asked if it included Hasa-Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal.
“They are still roaming around there,” Medina told reporters at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
Hasa-Hasa shoal is located 68 nautical miles from Balabac Island in Palawan. The shoal is said to be the trading post of Filipino fishermen transacting with Chinese fish traders.
Last year, the Philippine Navy’s flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar ran aground in the area.
In 2012, a Chinese frigate also ran aground the shoal, after conducting patrols.
General Benjamin Madrigal Jr, the Armed Forces chief of staff, confirmed the presence of about 200 Chinese fishing vessels in the disputed waters.
Panelo and Madrigal backed the decision of Locsin to file a protest against China for its harvesting of giant clams within Scarborough Shoal.
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