The Philippines on Wednesday dismissed calls to seek damages from China over environmental destruction of a disputed shoal, which Manila claims as its territory, saying that doing so would reverse diplomatic gains.
President Rodrigo Duterte believes in diplomacy and would prefer friendly consultations with China over Scarborough Shoal rather than direct diplomatic confrontation, his spokesman, Harry Roque, said in a statement.
“At present, we have an existing bilateral consultation mechanism with China, which has resulted in a productive exchange of views on how to boost cooperation on areas which include maritime environmental protection,” Roque said.
He said Chinese officials had assured the government that anyone who would not abide by the agreement would be punished.
“Filing a new case against China will reverse our diplomatic gains, not to mention the cost it entails,” Roque said.
Roque was reacting to a statement by Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio calling on the government to file a case demanding damages from China over Scarborough Shoal.
Carpio said Beijing had apparently violated its obligations under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, which calls on signatories to protect and preserve marine environments.
His comment was based on verified intelligence reports that Chinese fishermen protected by the Chinese coast guard had apparently destroyed coral reefs in Scarborough Shoal while harvesting giant clams.
The shoal is west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and is within its continental shelf.
The Chinese strayed into the area in 2012, leading to a diplomatic rift between Manila and Beijing. China stood its ground and instead stationed coast guard ships around the shoal.
The following year, Manila filed an arbitration case against China, arguing the triangular shoal in the South China Sea had long been a fishing ground for Filipinos and was well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in the Philippines’ favor. But instead of pushing to enforce the decision, Duterte, who took office that year, chose to appease China.
Carpio, who was part of the Philippine delegation involved in winning the case, said Scarborough was a traditional fishing ground that should be accessible to Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen.
“The coral reefs are the breeding ground of fish and without them there will be no fish in Scarborough Shoal,” Carpio said in a statement Wednesday.
He argued that the country did not ask for damages when it won the case about two years ago, but this time it should move swiftly.
“We can also ask damages for the action of China in preventing our fishermen from fishing inside the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal in violation of the July 12, 2016, arbitral ruling,” he added.
On Monday, Filipino fishermen demanded protection from Manila after the Chinese coast guard were caught on a video harassing and confiscating their catch.
One of the fishermen, Romel Cejuela, told reporters in Manila that the Chinese were blocking their path and preventing them from going inside the lagoon.
He said the Chinese effectively controlled the shoal, but had allowed Filipino fishermen access to the area when Duterte promised China that he would not seek to enforce the ruling.
Reacting to the fishermen’s concerns, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said it had reached an appropriate arrangement with the Philippines to allow its fishermen to venture in Scarborough Shoal out of goodwill.
It said it was conducting an investigation into the incident, but maintained that Chinese coast guard in the area always acted legally.
“If what the Philippine side claimed is true, I believe relevant Chinese departments will handle that in a serious manner,” the embassy said in a statement.