Manila (AFP) – The Philippines on Monday demanded that China stop confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, calling the practice “unacceptable”.
The remarks by President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman were a rare public rebuke from Manila, which has taken a non-confrontational approach with Beijing over the resource-rich waterway.
China controls several reefs in the sea including Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized from Manila in 2012 and is just 230 kilometres (143 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon.
China claims almost the entire sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, despite competing partial claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque on Monday confirmed a report that Chinese Coast Guard personnel seized the catch of Filipino fishermen in the shoal in May in violation of an agreement between the two nations allowing Filipinos to fish there.
“We are demanding that the Chinese take steps to stop the coast guard from doing these acts,” Roque told reporters.
“That is unacceptable. That is why we informed the Chinese we will not allow fish to be taken from our countrymen.”
The Chinese foreign ministry said it was investigating the reports and authorities will “seriously” deal with them if they are confirmed.
“Out of friendship, China has made proper arrangements for Filipino fishermen,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular press briefing.
“The Chinese coast guard is monitoring relevant waters to ensure peace and order in the area, and also offers humanitarian assistance to the Philippines fishermen,” Geng said.
“The Chinese coast guard always abides by the law.”
Duterte’s administration rejects criticism that its response to Chinese activities in the hotly contested waters has been weak.
China in May reportedly deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on the Spratly Islands and flew nuclear-capable bombers to a base in another disputed part of the sea.
Duterte’s aides have said previously the Philippines is taking “all diplomatic action” to protect its claims while insisting it would not anger China by engaging in “megaphone diplomacy”.
Manila, which has pursued trade deals and investment from China, instead holds regular talks with Beijing on the dispute.
On Monday Roque refused to describe the latest incident as harassment, adding the Chinese Coast Guard gave the Filipino fishermen noodles, cigarettes and water in exchange for their catch.
The fishermen, who appeared with Roque in the news briefing, said they were powerless to stop repeated seizures by the Chinese.
“The (Chinese coast guard personnel) board our boats, look at where we store the fish and take the best ones. We cannot do anything because their huge vessels are there,” said Romel Cejuela, one of the fishermen.