The Western Command issued this week a statement denying a claim made by Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo that Chinese fishers have displaced Filipino fishers from their traditional fishing grounds around Pag-Asa, the main island in the disputed West Philippine Sea being occupied by the Philippines.
In a previous interview with Palawan News, Mayor del Mundo said most Filipino fishermen have refrained from going to their usual fishing grounds around a sandbar off the island if only to avoid the Chinese fishing fleets, which have reportedly dominated the area under the protective gaze of armed Chinese Coast Guard ships.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ frontline command in charge of protecting the nation’s territory was splitting hairs on this one. While it is true that no fisherman has come to the authorities to complain, the report made by the civilian official who heads the local government unit of Kalayaan municipality about Chinese activities deserves utmost concern at the least, not an outright denial that panders to China’s arrogant posturing.
In the ongoing West Philippine Sea dispute, China has displayed a firm resolve to exercise physical and military control over the Philippine claim including the entire South China Sea. This, despite the International Court’s ruling declaring its artificial island building activities and its historical claim illegal and without basis. It has demonstrated a capacity to harm and injure innocent Filipino fishers venturing in these areas simply for a livelihood, using powerful water cannons and confiscating their catch, as has happened in Scarborough Shoal.
Mayor del Mundo’s account of recent Chinese behavior around Pag-Asa island should raise the concern of the Philippine government as to Beijing well-documented blockading tactics, described by experts as “cabbage strategy”, of harassing the Philippines out of its claimed territory. This tactic has apparently unfolded in Pag Asa, if del Mundo’s claim is true.
China has been trying to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone over the entire WPS and has harassed the country’s remote outposts such as Ayungin Shoal manned by a skeletal crew of ill-armed soldiers. It has been consistently pushing the limits of Philippine tolerance since the day it occupied the strategic Mischief Reef back in the mid-1990s.
A new normal has taken place in the waters just around Pag-Asa, and it is a cause for concern. While Malacañang and the Department of Foreign Affairs have continued to please Beijing, last we need is our armed forces chiming in to muffle the information.