Fishers told: Swarm the seas

The government on Thursday called on Filipino fishermen to swarm the West Philippine Sea after dozens of Chinese vessels were spotted in the area over the last few months.

This photo taken on June 7, 2014 shows Filipino fishing boats, about to set sail for Scarborough Shoal, anchored at Ulugan Bay, near the mouth of the West Philippine Sea, off Puerto Princesa on Palawan island. AFP

“We should be there. That area is our traditional fishing ground,” said Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director Eduardo Gongona, in an interview on the ANC news channel.

The West Philippine Sea, which produces more than 300,000 metric tons of fish for the country annually, generates about 7 percent of the country’s fisheries output, Gongona said.

He added that this output was necessary for the country’s food security.

“We are telling our Filipino fishermen to go out and fish in the West Philippine Sea because we need more than 300,000 metric tons of fish for our supply of food,” he said.

“The best the government can do is to send assets there to protect the fishermen, protect the fishing vessel and protect the environment that produces food,” Gongona added.

Earlier, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said “mutual swarming” of vessels increased the likelihood of a “mis-encounter” that could trigger the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.

“Brinkmanship brings clarity. And fortitude,” he said.

Over the weekend, the Philippine Coast Guard and the BFAR deployed eight capital ships to conduct maritime exercises in the West Philippine Sea as part of efforts to secure its maritime jurisdiction in the area.

Following this, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday recited its claims that it “enjoys sovereignty” over the disputed waters and said Manila must “respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes.”

But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said China has no legal basis to prevent the Philippines from conducting maritime drills in the West Philippine Sea.

Senator Richard J. Gordon said there was a need to increase coast guard patrolling and monitoring to protect the national territory.

Senator Risa Hontiveros said President Duterte did the right thing when he told Philippine ships in the WPS not to leave the area, despite the risk of damaging the country’s ties with China.

On the other hand, she said, the President should not think that remaining firm on enforcing the country’s territorial rights would necessarily lead to war with China.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, meanwhile, said the Philippines should not have any misplaced feelings of indebtedness to China, after Duterte said Manila owes Beijing for its assistance, including the COVID-19 vaccines that it donated.

Recto said China’s continuing incursions in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea have displaced Filipino fishermen and reduced the country’s sources of food.

“China has taken away our ability to utilize resources in our exclusive economic zone and has destabilized the region by building military outposts in the West [Philippine] Sea,” he said.

In a televised briefing Wednesday, Duterte said the Philippines owes a debt of gratitude to China, which has donated 1 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine.

But he said the Philippines’ territorial waters cannot be bargained away.

“So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war. But there are things that are not really subject to a compromise … I hope they will understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect,” the President said.

The President’s spokesman, Harry Roque, said it was only right to acknowledge the country’s debt of gratitude to China.

“Until now, we only rely on Sinovac, let’s admit that. It has been months since we started our vaccination, it’s only Sinovac that we rely on. It’s only right that we honor our debt of gratitude,” Roque said, referring to the Chinese company that makes the COVID-19 vaccine.

But he said the Philippines is also honoring its debt to other countries that contributed to the COVAX Facility headed by the World Health Organization.

“We honor a debt of gratitude to them, too,” he said.

But a member of the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives slammed the President’s remarks on the West Philippine Sea row.

“Duterte is desperately trying to show that he’s able to serve two masters—the Philippines and China, but it’s very clear who he is really devoted to, and sadly it is not his own country. He tried to talk tough when he called on our soldiers to maintain their positions, but eventually prostrated [himself] to his Chinese masters,” said Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite.

“He is double thinking and double speaking,” Gaite said. “One cannot strongly assert our sovereignty and at the same time consider as a dear friend, someone you are greatly indebted to and those who blatantly trample on it,” Gaite said.

“Duterte is saying that we should wait for China’s next action. What action is he still waiting for? They are already in our territory. Is he waiting for them to build more structures, to deploy more ships, to have the Chinese flags planted on each one of our islands? Is he waiting until it is really too late to assert our ownership? Quite frankly, Duterte’s strategy of waiting is a strategy of slow surrender,” Gaite added.

“War is not the solution to address this problem. Vietnam and Indonesia have effectively asserted their claims without going to war. There are other peaceful ways to assert our claims. And so we are being bullied [by the] threat of a war. It’s a lie that Duterte is repeating to cover up his refusal to assert our sovereignty and territory,” Gaite said.

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