MARIVELES, Bataan: Fishermen here on Thursday alerted the government to the presence of Chinese naval patrols in the Rizal (Commodore) Reef, one of the 10 remaining areas in the Kalayaan (Spratlys) island group under Philippine control.
Donie Cabacungan, skipper of the fishing boat MB Denmark, said they could no longer get near the reef as armed Chinese Coast Guard personnel on board speed boats would chase and drive them away.
“We call on the government to protect our territory. The Chinese are already there even at Commodore which is very near a Philippine military outpost. The Chinese Navy has been circling the area,” he told The Manila Times in Filipino.
The Rizal Reef is approximately 200 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, and closest to the Palawan town of Balabac. The reef has a total land area of 3.7 hectares if not submerged under water during high tide.
Cabacungan said that about a week ago, they monitored a radio message from a boat captain from Iloilo claiming that a Chinese naval boat with bow number 29 drove them away from the reef.
“There are Filipino soldiers stationed at Commodore but nonetheless, the Chinese continue to encircle the reef to prevent us from fishing in the area,” he added.
Valeriano Quimson, skipper of the fishing boat John Alex, said they have not returned to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal since April after their boat got destroyed when a Chinese Coast Guard ship trained its water cannon at them.
“We just use a payaw [a fish aggregating device]fo fish. The catch is low and we only get smaller fish. It’s just enough to make us afford to buy rice for our families,” he added. “It would’ve been better if we could fish at Scarborough. The fish are bigger there and command a higher price in the market.”
Quimson said their income has dropped by 30 to 50 percent since they were barred from Scarborough.
War not an option
Malacañang on Friday sought to allay fears that a maritime and territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) would lead to war.
Its deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said the government will not let the dispute escalate into an armed conflict.
“The government is very cautious in dealing with the issue as we don’t want incidents that have a tendency of escalating to happen,” she told reporters in Filipino. “Should things escalate, what will happen to our soldiers who are there facing danger, and also to ordinary people like us/”
Valte was reacting to a Social Weather Stations survey, which said eight of 10 Filipinos fear a possible armed conflict between the Philippines and China over the Panatag Shoal.
“It will be unnatural if you don’t worry about armed conflict because in an armed conflict, no one wins,” she said.
A Chinese website has posted pictures showing female soldiers hamming it up for the camera at the Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, one of the areas in the West Philippine Sea where a massive land reclamation is in progress.
A slideshow of the pictures on the website sina.com.ch also shows soldiers tending to vegetable gardens, pigs in a pen and a dog lazing around.
One female soldier was photographed posing on a marker with an inscription that reportedly says “Awe-inspiring South China Sea.”
With CATHERINE S. VALENTE