Duterte urged to seek end to Chinese clam harvesting

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
Duterte urged to seek end  to Chinese clam harvesting
In Beijing, the Philippines’ ambassador to China said Manila wants to see Beijing act on its fishermen’s harvesting of giant clams in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which Beijing has declared illegal since January 2007.

MANILA, Philippines — While in Beijing to strengthen bilateral ties, President Duterte can press for an end to the harvesting of giant clams and other activities by the Chinese that destroy the maritime environment in the West Philippine Sea, according to a Filipino maritime expert.

 Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines-Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, made the suggestion as he stressed the need for the Philippine government to be consistent in confronting China amid Malacañang’s recent change of stance on the maritime dispute.

“Insofar as the situation in the West Philippine Sea is concerned, we have not received reports that anything has really substantially changed. And as late as this past Holy Week of course we have received reports that actually the activities have continued and it causes a lot of concern,” Batongbacal told “The Chiefs” on One News-Cignal TV on Wednesday.

“These activities, particularly the clam digging and the destruction of the coral reef, were happening right in full view of the China coast guard even. So we can say really that nothing has changed,” he said.

In Beijing, the Philippines’ ambassador to China said Manila wants to see Beijing act on its fishermen’s harvesting of giant clams in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which Beijing has declared illegal since January 2007.

“There is an issue of accountability. If that is the case, how come this is happening? And that is an issue that we continue to discuss,” Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said the other day.

Even with the change in tone of the government in dealing with China, Batongbacal said it does not reflect any change in policy.

“And we hope that this is not just because it happens to be election season,” he stressed.

Batongbacal said the Duterte administration has been consistent in accommodating China for the past three years, to the point of even defending China’s actions.

“So it’s definitely a surprise that all of a sudden it shifts radically to the other side,” he said.

Batongbacal said government has to maintain any change in policy.

“The subsequent statements of the Palace really have to be consistent, even if it is a slow push towards a change in the situation in the West Philippine Sea, one that at least would put the Philippines there at the very minimum on equal terms with the Chinese,” Batongbacal added. 

The Philippines, in a sense, retreated from those areas because its Coast Guard was not present in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and the country stopped its oil exploration in the maritime areas it claimed.

“We are left to simply observing masses of Chinese fishing vessels around our position,” he said.

China would notice the change in the way and tone of the government that could present a problem for them because Beijing, in cooperation of the Philippine government, has been trying to present an image of stability, cooperation and friendliness and that the West Philippine Sea, or South China Sea, is not a problem anymore.

“But as we’ve seen it’s still a very big problem,” he said.

Batongbacal noted that stopping China’s illegal clam digging operation in Panatag Shoal should be the main priority of President Duterte’s visit to China.

He said the Philippines has to reestablish its presence in the area, as all activities there are controlled by Chinese coast guard and its maritime militia.

This should include restricting the illegal harvesting of giant clams in the area.

“This is not the way for China to let things cool down and then afterwards they’ll allow these clam diggers back in when they think nobody is looking anymore,” he said.

Batongbacal called it “unacceptable” that Filipino fishermen are present and fishing under the control and administration of China coast guard. 

“But after that, then the next victory would be again reestablishing Philippine presence and freedom of access in this area because right now our access there is under the shadow always of China coast guard or China maritime militia or Navy. So we need to be able to push them back in that sense,” he said.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana pointed out an existing standoff between Beijing and Manila over Sandy Cay, a maritime feature near Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea.

Sta. Romana said the Chinese claim Sandy Cay while the Philippines is occupying nearby Pag-asa island.

“In other words, it is difficult because they are occupying one feature and we are occupying another feature and in between is Sandy Cay; it’s really the root of this issue right now. And we hope that this can slowly be managed in such a way that you de-escalate the situation and it becomes less of a flashpoint,” Sta. Romana told reporters in Beijing.

Sta. Romana said the government recognizes that, given this difference, it wants to resolve and deal with China through diplomacy so that it will not be a crisis point.

“And so that we can resolve this slowly over time. Sovereignty issue as you know can take years, if not decades, many generations. In the meantime though, the key is not to lose what you’re holding on to. And to gain access if you lost – whatever you have lost. And at the same time, to make sure that this underlying difference in sovereignty does not become an obstacle to developing relations,” Sta. Romana said.

That is why government employs a two-track approach in dealing with China, he said. 

“The disputes, it will take time. And we try to resolve what we can. The areas where there are no disputes, you try to maximize because you’re trying to maximize what – what benefits you could gain. So, as long as you understand that    , then you’d manage the dispute and you maximize the cooperation where you can. That would strike a balance,” Sta. Romana said. 

He said there is a provisional agreement with Beijing to keep Sandy Cay unoccupied.

“The Chinese are watching us that we won’t occupy and we are watching them they won’t occupy,” he said.

Sta. Romana stressed the broad consensus is to keep Sandy Cay unoccupied. 

“And for the Philippines, it is part of Pag-asa. And the Chinese considers it part of their own area. So, the key right now is keep it unoccupied. There is this Philippine position for China not to swarm and not to prevent our access in terms of supply lines that have remained open and so we’ve been able to keep that,” he said. 

Chinese probe

Sta. Romana said the Chinese government had said that if indeed there were cases of harvesting of giant clams in Panatag, then the ship number and time of haul should be reported and it will investigate.

He explained that the Philippine government had done this “and so we’re waiting for the results” of the investigation.

“So, that is what we hope to influence. Because they themselves say they’re against the harvest of giant clams. How come this is happening?” Sta. Romana said.

The ambassador said the Philippines has been raising the issue on the harvesting of giant clams through the bilateral consultation mechanism with China being a “major concern,” especially in terms of its effects on the environment.

He said based on Chinese pronouncements before the media, the sale and manufacture of giant clams have also been declared illegal since January 2017 and not just their harvest.

Sta. Romana said “accountability” is what they are trying to achieve through diplomacy.

“So what I’m saying is that, there are things that you could influence their behavior if you bring it up for discussion like… the issue of fish catch, to try to put a stop to that.The issue of the giant clams is… still a challenge,” he said.

The Duterte administration is being criticized for its friendly stance toward China despite its incursions into Philippine waters.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Philippines will take legal action against China for the harvesting of giant clams in Panatag Shoal.

ICC case being ignored

As this developed, China continues to ignore the case filed by former foreign affairs secretary Alberto del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales against Chinese President Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court over the environmental destruction in the West Philippine (South China) Sea.

Sta. Romana said even the Chinese media ignored the issue.

Sta. Romana said the case did not have any effect on bilateral relations between China and the Philippines.

“Well, they inquired, you know, what it means. And we basically explained that these are done by individuals in the Philippines. It is possible for individuals to file a case… in the sense that they wanted some background whether it was a government policy or not. It’s not,” Sta. Romana added. 

Sta. Romana said proof that the bilateral relations between China and the Philippines have not been affected by the case is that President Duterte is attending the Second Belt and Road Forum now going on here, along with 39 other heads of state and international agencies.  – With Edith Regalado

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