Activists on Monday protested outside the Chinese embassy over reports of its boats chasing away Filipino fishermen from a string of sandbars close to a Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea.
The activists slammed what they called China’s latest bullying tactics against Filipino fishermen whenever they approached what is considered traditional fishing grounds around Pag-asa Island. The protests came three days after the U.S. secretary of state assured the Philippine government of his nation’s support.
“We condemn this continuing Chinese occupation of our marine waters and denial of Filipino fishers of their livelihood in the strongest possible terms,” said Fernando Hicap, chairman of fishermen’s group called Pamalakaya.
“Aside from fast transforming our marine territory into military facilities, China also tightly controls fishing activities and who can have access in our own fishing waters,” Hicap said. “They are not only threatening the livelihood of Filipino fishermen but also the food security of millions of Filipino people who depend on fish as a protein source.”
The sandbars are 3 km (1.8 miles) from the island, a Philippine-claimed territory in the South China Sea. Filipino defense department officials recently noted that dozens of Chinese ships had been anchoring near Pag-asa, which the Chinese refer to as Thitu island.
Kalayaan, a small Philippine township on the island, is under the jurisdiction of southwestern Palawan province. It has been part of the country since the late 1970s, by virtue of a presidential decree and other international laws.
On Sunday, Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo said Filipino fishermen were being driven away by Chinese boats whenever they came anywhere near the closest sandbar.
Hicap called on President Rodrigo Duterte to issue a strong condemnation against China.
On Monday, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said the government needed to validate the reports, but supported the Filipinos.
“Our fishermen have been fishing there. Nobody has the right to drive our fishermen away,” he told reporters.
Del Mundo said about 50 Chinese boats were blocking Filipino fishermen.
“The Chinese are only staying around the shallow part of sandbars because they can’t occupy the sandbar itself because it would damage their boats,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“But there’s no harassment, as some say, you just can’t go to the nearest sandbar. I don’t know the reason why they do that, to think that’s supposed to be ours,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Duterte and Filipino diplomats last week, assured them Washington would back the country.
He said the two nations were bound by a Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951 and that any armed attack on Filipino forces in the disputed sea “would trigger mutual defense obligations.”
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. The region also is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, leading to skirmishes in the area.
Despite pledges to keep the peace in the region, China recently installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems in its occupied territories.
Maritime analyst Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines described Chinese fishing boats as an example of Beijing’s “gray zone strategy.”
“In this tactic, civilian vessels are used to avoid direct responsibility by arguing that these are not government vessels. These are ostensibly civilian fishing vessels used to either intimidate or discourage our vessels from coming too close,” he said.
“What the Philippines should do is to protest each and every instance of blocking because they are in violation in rules of the road,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City contributed to this report.