MANILA – Newly installed Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Almendras on Monday vowed to take appropriate diplomatic action against China once Philippine defense authorities have verified the reported harassment of Filipino fishermen by Chinese Coast Guard vessels off the Manila-claimed Scarborough shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
“When and if our Armed Forces does validate it, then we will be launching our official course of action – to express our opinions according to the diplomatic channels,” Almendras said in his first press conference since assuming as DFA chief on March 8 when his predecessor, Albert del Rosario stepped down due to health concerns.
Almendras met with China’s top envoy to Manila, Zhang Jianhua, to discuss bilateral concerns, but admitted that the issue was not taken up because the incident has yet to be verified.
The new DFA Secretary described his meeting with Zhang as “very nice and friendly” but said incident on the shoal, located 124 nautical miles off the nearest Philippine landmass of Palawan and 472 nautical miles from China’s nearest coastal province of Hainan, was “not discussed at all.”
Almendras said Zhang was the one who sought the meeting.
“It was not mentioned. We can not raise it until we have the information,” Almendras later on told reporters after his meeting with the Chinese diplomat that last for about 30 minutes.
In a move that is likely to raise tensions anew between the two Asian neighbors embroiled in a years-long territorial spats over contested South China Sea territories, Chinese Coast Guard rubber boats reportedly rammed and destroyed a vessel carrying 11 Filipino fishermen at the shoal.
The shoal, a U-shaped rocky outcrop rich in marine resources was seized by China from Manila in 2012 following a two-month standoff, triggering an arbitration complaint by Manila that was filed in January 2013. A final decision is expected on or before May this year.
Reports said fishermen claimed that Chinese vessels drove them away on March 5 and 6 when they tried get close to the shoal, where access has since been blocked by Chinese government vessels.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea and declared the Scarborough Shoal as its traditional fishing ground even if it is hundreds of miles away from it.
“I’m not saying that our fishermen are lying or not. It’s just that procedure and protocol requires us to validate and really vet it before we start doing the immediate action,” Almendras said. “The actions that we will do is the actions that we have been doing in the past which is to use the diplomatic channels accordingly.”