By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Revin Mikhael D. Ochave, Reporters
PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte will keep friendly relations with China despite its incursions in the South China Sea, his spokesman said on Monday.
Trade and investments relations with Beijing would continue, while Manila tries to set aside conflicts that might not get resolved immediately, presidential spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. told a televised news briefing.
“We will continue relations on things that can be pursued, while setting aside those that can’t be resolved in our lifetime,” he said in Filipino.
Mr. Roque earlier denied the existence of a verbal fishing deal between Mr. Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying the country’s top leader opposes any unregulated commercial fishing in Philippine waters.
He also belied allegations that the government had encouraged the presence of Chinese fishermen in the disputed waterway.
Almost two years ago, Mr. Duterte said he was allowing Chinese fishing activities within the country’s exclusive economic zone. He cited a deal he made with China’s Mr. Xi after Beijing supposedly granted Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal.
“We are appalled by the failure of our own government to effectively secure the sovereignty of the country,” the De La Salle University’s Political Science Department said in a statement on Monday.
It said the government could explore multilateral solutions to defend its sovereignty.
“The President should disabuse himself from the simplistic notion that the only other option is to antagonize China and risk war,” it said.
The Philippines has filed several diplomatic protests against China given its incursions, including the refusal of some Chinese vessels to leave Whitsun Reef, which Manila claims.
De La Salle international studies professor Renato C. de Castro on Sunday said the government should build structures in its territories to deter Chinese incursions.
The Philippines got as much as 7.4% or 324,312 metric tons (MT) of its annual fish output from the South China Sea last year, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
“We need to get our fair share to boost our food production and security,” BFAR Director Eduardo B. Gongona told a separate televised news briefing in Filipino on Monday.
“That’s still a significant proportion of fish catch, assuming it’s a proportion of marine capture fisheries production,” Jay L. Batongbacal, who heads the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said in a Viber message.
Mr. Gongona encouraged local fishermen to continue fishing in the South China Sea. “Our fishermen should not be scared to go to the West Philippine Sea.” The government should protect them and their fishing vessels, he added.
Mr. Duterte last week said there was not enough fish to quarrel about in the disputed waterway. He added that he would only send warships to the South China Sea once China starts drilling for oil.
Political analysts on Sunday said the sea is crucial to the country’s food security, with output worth $617 million in 2016.
Annual yield from the Spratly Islands alone could reach as high as 91,000 metric tons a year, which is equivalent to 5% of the country’s total marine capture, Mr. Batongbacal said.
“Fisheries in the West Philippine Sea looks underutilized,” Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a research fellow at the Ateneo De Manila University Policy Center, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.
He said the Southeast Asian nation might be getting fewer fish from the waterway given China’s island-building activities in the area.
“First, it’s likely because it’s not an economic policy priority,” Mr. Yusingco said. “Second, the presence of Chinese vessels has displaced our own fishers.”
He also cited the country’s weak maritime security. “So our fisherfolk don’t feel safe working in the West Philippine Sea,” he added, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile, Senator Risa Baraquel-Hontiveros demanded that China pay the Philippines more than P800 billion for destroying the marine environment. The money could boost Philippine response against the coronavirus, she said in a statement.
“We in the government must already take the next concrete steps on how to make China pay.”
Scientist group AGHAM earlier said Beijing’s island-building activities had destroyed at least 16,000 hectares of reefs in the South China Sea as of 2017. It said yearly damage to reefs could hit as much as P33.1 billion.