China’s Navy harassed PH fishers, says lawmaker
It was China’s Navy and not its Coast Guard that fired shots to drive away Filipino fishermen from Union Banks in the heavily disputed Spratly archipelago on April 9, making the incident more unsettling than previously thought, a lawmaker said on Sunday.
“According to the initial reports, it was the Chinese Coast Guard that was involved in the Union Banks incident. However, in our meeting with the fishermen themselves, we [learned] that it was actually a Chinese Navy ship [that was involved],” Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano said in a statement.
Alejano, a former Marine officer, expressed concern that China’s aggressive action in the Spratlys was carried out by a “gray ship.”
The term “gray ship” refers to the navy of any country. “White ship” refers to the coast guard.
Alejano emphasized the difference between the missions of the navy and coast guard.
The coast guard is tasked with enforcing maritime law and to conduct search and rescue, while the navy is tasked with fighting for the country at sea during war, he said.
Alejano warned: “The aggressive act of the Chinese Navy could trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty and there is a danger that the situation may escalate.”
Under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States, an attack on a Philippine vessel in Philippine waters is an attack on the United States.
The United States has repeatedly said its commitment to defend the Philippines is “ironclad.”
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) called West Philippine Sea.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea, where $5 trillion in global trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
Union Banks is a large drowned atoll located 230 km west of Palawan, well within the Philippines’ EEZ.
According to a television report last week, the incident happened on April 9 near Gavin Reef (international name: Gaven Reef), one of the reefs in Union Banks claimed by the Philippines but occupied and had been built on by China.
Alejano traveled to Mariveles in Bataan province on Saturday to look for the fishermen and their boat, the Princess Johanna. He found them in Sisiman village, Mariveles, and they told him that a big gray ship watched as a gray speedboat came at them firing warning shots.
Alejano showed the fishermen photographs of Chinese Navy ships and the People’s Liberation Army uniform, and they told him both resembled what they had seen at Union Banks.
Orlan Dumat, 28, one of the fishermen, said seven Chinese men in gray uniforms came in a speedboat and turned back his group by firing shots in the air.
Frightened, the fishermen cut the anchor, instead of hauling it in, and ran for it.
The speedboat gave chase, firing. The fishermen noticed that shots were fired near their boat’s outriggers.
Dumat said one of the outriggers was hit but no one on the boat was hurt.
“As we sailed away, the Chinese boat continued to tail us,” he said.
How the story got out
The fishermen returned to Mariveles and kept the incident to themselves, but a member of the boat owners’ association in the village told the story to a local journalist.
When their story finally reached the government’s attention, Philippine Coast Guard officers went to Mariveles to investigate, but chided the fishermen for telling their story to the press first before reporting what happened to the authorities.
The Mariveles fishermen’s experience was probably the first incident that appeared to involve the Chinese Navy. All previous incidents in the West Philippine Sea involved the Chinese Coast Guard.
Alejano last week urged the government to file a strong protest against China over the incident.
Gen. Eduardo Año, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told reporters that the incident was under investigation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was still verifying the incident.
The Princess Johanna left Mariveles on March 25 with a crew of 25 and arrived at Union Banks on April 9.
The fishermen told Alejano that they go to Union Banks every year or whenever fish in their traditional fishing grounds in the Spratlys, among them Rizal Reef (Commodore Reef), were scarce.
They said they noticed concrete structures at Union Banks that were not there last year.
The fishermen were probably referring to the structures on the artificial islands built by China on three reefs in Union Banks, all claimed by the Philippines—Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), Gavin Reef and McKennan Reef (Hughes Reef).