MANILA, Philippines – For Malacañang, the Duterte administration can't do much about the harassment by Chinese vessels of Filipino fishermen trying to enter Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
This was Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo's response to a Neri Colmenares video featuring interviews with Zambales fishermen who claim to have experienced intimidation tactics by China.
"Ang tanong ko naman sa 'yo, may magagawa ba tayo eh sila ang may control as of now 'di ba? Mayroon silang puwersa doon," he said on Monday, March 25, during a Palace news briefing.
(My question to you is, what can we do when they have control as of now, right? They have forces there.)
He went on to say that the Philippines can only file protests and hope for a response from China.
"We can only protest like any other country who has claims like Vietnam. That's all we can do or you want us to declare war against them?" he added.
Malacañang, following President Rodrigo Duterte's lead, has long insisted that the Philippines has only two options when it comes to defending its rights in the West Philippine Sea – negotiations with China or a declaration of war.
But maritime law experts like Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario have said there are many other options available to the Philippines. These options include gathering international support for the country's historic victory over China at the International Tribunal in the Hague.
Panelo repeated the Palace stance that the Hague ruling has been shelved by the Duterte administration because it supposedly can't be enforced.
"What I'm saying is, tell me, has any arbitral ruling by this international court been enforced previously? Then kung mayroon, may pag-asa tayo. Kung wala, sa ngayon wala muna tayong magagawa. So pag-usapan na lang natin sa negotiations," he said.
(If there is, we have hope. If there is none, for now, we can't do anything. So let's just discuss it in negotiations.)
Water cannons thrown at fishermen
The roughly 6-minute video posted on Neri Colmenares' Facebook page shows Colmenares, a senatorial candidate, interviewing fishermen from Masinloc town in Zambales.
One fisherman described how Chinese vessels lobbed water cannons at them as they tried to enter Panatag Shoal, a shoal that is under the de facto control of China due to the presence of its vessels there even if the shoal belongs to the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.
The fishermen also said 8 Chinese vessels guard the entrance to the shoal, preventing Filipino fishermen from entering. The intimidation tactics have led the fishermen to stay away from the shoal which has resulted in less catch and less income they can bring home to their families.
Panelo dismissed the Colmenares video, doubting the events narrated by the fishermen actually took place recently. He expressed confidence that the Chinese no longer harass Filipino fishermen.
"I'm saying they have to show proof that this is still happening now. Because if it's still happening now, then we will protest. We will not allow that to happen to our fishermen," he said.
But Kip Oebanda, the video's director, said the interview with fishermen took place only last February 16. He challenged Panelo to speak to the Masinloc fishermen himself.
"How about instead of lying to the people about the video, go there yourself and actually talk to the fishermen? How about address their concerns instead," he said in a Facebook post on Monday.
Oebanda openly supports the senatorial bid of Colmenares.
Value of negotiations
Panelo gave assurances that the Duterte administration is addressing actions of China in the West Philippine Sea through negotiations. Manila and Beijing have held some meetings as part of the "bilateral consultation mechanism" (BCM) on the South China Sea. But the results of these meetings have been vague.
If proven China has violated its agreement with the Philippines when it comes to Filipinos' access to Panatag Shoal, Panelo said Beijing "will have to correct it."
But asked if the events described by the Masinloc fishermen show the negotiations are not working, Panelo again said there is not much the government can do.
"Outside the negotiation, anong gagawin natin (what will we do)? What is important is we are not agreeing to what they're doing to us. No, we're not allowing, we're opposing it," he said.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.