Duterte expresses concern over fishermen's plight in Panatag Shoal

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
Duterte expresses concern over fishermen's plight in Panatag Shoal
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte leads the flag-raising ceremony during the 120th Philippine Independence Day celebration at the Museo ni Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit, Cavite on June 12, 2018. Joining the President are National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) Chairperson Dr. Rene Escalante and Sec. Bong Go of the Office of the Special Assistant to the President.
Presidential photo / Alfred Frias

KAWIT, Cavite — President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday conveyed to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua his concern over the plight of Filipinos in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal a day after local fishermen confirmed that Chinese Coast Guard personnel are forcibly taking some of their catch. 

Duterte was seen talking to Zhao during the celebration of the 120th anniversary of the Philippines' independence here. They chatted for about two minutes before Duterte interacted with other envoys and officials at the house of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippines.

Speaking to reporters after the Independence Day rites, Zhao said the situation in Panatag Shoal was discussed during his brief talk with Duterte. 

"President Duterte shared his concern about the FIlipino fishermen. I remember even before he took office, he raised concern and now he took office, China and the Philippines, under the guidance of the Presidents of both countries, reached (a) friendly arrangement which allows the Filipino fishermen to go back to the waters near Scarborough," the envoy said.  

"Fishermen are fishing there. This arrangement has not changed and will not be changed," he added. 

Zhao said the Chinese government would investigate reports that Chinese Coast Guard personnel are confiscating the best catch of Filipinos in the Panatag Shoal. He claimed China does not allow its Coast Guard to take the fish of Filipino fishermen. 

"I have noted this complaint by the Filipino fishermen. But rest assured we are conducting a responsible investigation," Zhao said. 

"If the media report is somewhat true, let's view it as an isolated incident. It should not reflect the whole picture of the bilateral relationship (between the Philippines and China) and should not reflect the whole arrangement with regard to the fishing in the waters around Huangyan or Scarborough," he added. 

Zhao said erring Chinese Coast Guard personnel would be punished because China does not allow them to do "anything that is harmful to Filipino fishermen."

"If the alleged report of Chinese Coast Guards illegal or forcefully taking the catch of Filipino fishermen is true, let me say in English there is a saying, ‘Even in the best regulated families, accidents happen,'" the envoy said.  

"So we always have bad apples but if we have bad apples, you know what I'm going to do, I'm going to  throw into the South China Sea and feed the fish," he added. 

Barter trade?

On Monday, Filipino fishermen confirmed that China is in control of the Panatag Shoal, a traditional fishing ground located off Zambales that is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. 

China's occupation of the area began in 2012 when surveillance vessels from Beijing prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had poached harvested endangered marine species. 

Fisherman Romel Cejuela said members of the Chinese Coast Guard have been forcibly taking the high-value fish of Filipinos. Chinese Coast Guard personnel give local fishermen noodles, cigarettes and water in exchange for their catch, he added. 

Zhao said based on the statements of fishermen, what happened was a barter trade and not harassment. 

"Whether (the fish was) forcefully taken or (whether there was) harassment, it's really up to the investigation. I'm sure you have noted the Filipino sides' remarks...From the remarks, I can see that it's primarily barter trade if you may call it," the Chinese ambassador said. 

Asked to react to claims that large boats are not being allowed to enter the shoal, Zhao said it was part of efforts to protect the marine resources in the area.  

"I think it's a mutual understanding. Both sides will only allow fishermen to go there. Up until now, we do not encourage commercial fishing, the large giant fishing vessels there because we also have a responsibility for protecting the species of the fish and also the environment there," Zhao said. 

Chinese envoy meets defense chief 

Before the start of the Independence Day rites, Zhao was also seen talking to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana by the window of the house of Aguinaldo. 

The defense chief pointed fingers at the Chinese envoy several times throughout the conversation. 

Zhao declined to reveal details of the conversation, saying it was "confidential." 

In a text message, Lorenzana said he and Zhao talked about the concerns of Filipino fishermen in Panatag Shoal. 

"We discussed about the Filipino fishermen's complaint that the Chinese Coast Guard is getting their catch. He said they are investigating," Lorenzana said. 

Asked about his hand gestures during the conversation, Lorenzana said: "Pakita rin ng konting inis (to express irritation)."

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