The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Thursday said they were separately verifying reports that the Chinese Coast Guard fired at and harassed Filipino fishermen somewhere in the disputed South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
Gen. Eduardo Año, AFP chief of staff, said he had directed Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario, commander of the Western Command (Westcom), to validate the reports.
It was del Rosario, according to Año, who reported the matter to him.
“We also heard that but it’s hard to give an official statement without getting first the facts and verifying the alleged incident. In coordination with other agencies particularly the Philippine Coast Guard, we will validate it and thereafter take the proper actions,” he said.
The reports did not say where in contested waterway the incident happened.
The AFP chief said one of the reports said the fishermen were from La Union province, making him wonder how fishermen from the province reached the South China Sea.
Another report said the incident happened in Mariveles, Bataan.
“That [Mariveles] was too close to us. [But] we will check, we will validate because we heard also that it happened in the vicinity of Union Bank or Union Reef,” Ano said.
Union Reef, according to him, is near Burgos (Gaven Reef) where the Chinese have built structures.
“We are still verifying where it [reported shooting and harassment]exactly happened. So we have to coordinate with our Coast Guard because normally it is the Coast Guard that is in charge of proper legal enforcement.
Before any military action, military response, that’s the last recourse. What I am saying is investigation has to be conducted [first]by the law enforcement agency particularly the Philippine Coast Guard,” he explained.
Citing the reports, the AFP chief said the “harassment” happened several days ago but it was reported only on Thursday.
He urged the fishermen to report the matter to the Philippine National Police or Coast Guard to help in the investigation of what really transpired.
When asked about the shots fired, Año said authorities have not heard such.
“What we heard was pure harassment,” he added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, ”We are still validating if. If true, we will file a protest.”
The DFA said it was “verifying this report [on the ‘firing’ and the ‘harassment’]with our security agencies. With the current positive momentum in Philippine-China relations, we have mechanisms in place where the Philippines can raise such issues. This includes the bilateral consultation mechanism, which is meant to tackle issues of concern in the West Philippine Sea,” new department spokesman Robe Bolivar said.
Bolivar’s reaction was sought by reporters after fishermen from Mariveles town in Bataan claimed that a Chinese Coast Guard speedboat circled them near Union Reef and fired warning shots.
The fishermen suspected that the Chinese Coast Guard is securing a marine construction site in the area.
This is the first time this year that the Chinese Coast Guard has chased Filipino fishermen.
Filipino fishermen could freely fish in the disputed area after a successful visit to China of President Rodrigo Duterte last year.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea.
The Philippines in 2016 won a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Netherlands that had sought to invalidate China’s “historical” claim.
Beijing, however, refused to accept the ruling.
WITH JAIME R. PILAPIL