China to punish Coast Guard members in spat with PH fishermen – envoy

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs Geng Shuang defends their coast guard personnel, saying they have always acted in accordance with the law.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 12) Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua assured Tuesday that members of his country's coast guard who take some of the catch of Filipino fishermen around the disputed Scarborough Shoal would be punished.

"We will check if there's any misconduct conducted by the Chinese Coast Guard. Those individuals will be punished, and the rules will be there," he told reporters in Kawit, Cavite.

President Rodrigo Duterte talked to Zhao about the matter minutes before the flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the country's 120th Independence Day.

In an interview with reporters after the exchange, the Chinese envoy said Beijing's coast guard are disciplined and behave in accordance with their laws.

"We do not allow Chinese coast guards to do anything that is harmful to Filipino fishermen," Zhao said.

He stressed that Filipinos may fish in the area freely.  A video released last week showed alleged members of the Chinese Coast Guard taking away over P4,000 worth of fish caught by Filipino fishermen around Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground for people in the area.  

"The friendly arrangement (which) allowed fishermen to fish in the waters around Huangyan Dao or Scarborough is not going to be changed. It will not be changed. That means they can go back and fish there freely," Zhao said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said the concerned departments would handle the issue.

"(The) Chinese side is now conducting an investigation seriously. If what the Philippine side claimed is true, I believe relevant Chinese departments will handle that in a serious manner," Geng said in a press briefing Monday.

Beijing's Foreign Ministry clarified that "appropriate arrangement(s)" had been made allowing Filipinos to fish in relevant waters "out of goodwill".

For decades, Manila and Beijing have been engaged in a diplomatic row over the Scarborough Shoal and other contested islands and features in the South China Sea. China has refused to acknowledge a 2016 ruling of an international tribunal favoring the Philippines' claims over features within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, including Scarborough.

Despite this, Geng noted improved ties between the two countries.

"At this point, the China-Philippines friendly relations have taken on a positive trend, and China has a clear and firm determination to commit itself to consolidating and strengthening China-Philippines relations," he said.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on Monday said the Philippines would leave it up to China to address the issue, but kept mum on whether the government would file a diplomatic protest against the East Asian country.

Vice President Leni Robredo, on the other hand,  expressed support for local fishermen.

"Gusto sana nating ipaabot na marami pa naman kaming handang ipaglaban iyong karapatan ninyo. At gaano man kahirap, ipapakipaglaban namin iyon," she said in an ambush interview in Cavite.

[Translation: I just want to tell them that we are all ready to fight for your rights, no matter how difficult.]

But Senate President Tito Sotto said the Philippines must employ friendlier strategies with all nations.

"No country wants to go to war.  That is why we are exhausting all possible means to avoid it from happening," he said in a Monday statement. "I appeal to the media and our countrymen not to swallow everything  the doomsayers say."