MANILA - China's Coast Guard has been regularly filching fish from Filipinos fishing around a disputed reef near the main Philippine island of Luzon, a top Philippine official claimed on Monday (June 11).
"This is unacceptable," President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said at a news briefing, as he presented three fishermen who have lodged a complaint after Chinese Coast Guard men boarded their boats and hauled some of their catch last month (May).
Mr Roque described the incident, which happened near Scarborough Shoal, just 358km west of Luzon, as "fish thievery".
"We are not taking this sitting down," he said.
He said Mr Duterte and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have "an understanding" that Filipinos should be allowed to fish unimpeded around Scarborough.
"China's Coast Guard should not be taking a single kilo of fish from our fishermen," he said.
He said Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano raised the matter with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua over the weekend.
China's envoy assured Mr Cayetano the incident would be investigated, and that the Chinese Coast Guard men said to be preying on Filipino fishermen would be punished, according to Mr Roque.
China seized control of Scarborough in 2012, after a Philippine Navy frigate intercepted eight Chinese fishing boats suspected of poaching coral and giant clams.
A two-month standoff between the Philippines and China later ensued. The United States eventually mediated a deal. Both sides were told to withdraw from Scarborough.
The Philippines pulled out its ships. But China stayed, and later roped off the mouth of the lagoon. It sealed off the entire atoll and chased away Filipino fishermen attempting to get near.
China loosened its hold last year, as Mr Duterte upended the foreign policy warmer of his predecessor and instead sought warmer ties with Beijing. Filipinos were again allowed to fish around Scarborough.
But Mr Romel Cejeula, one of the fishermen Mr Roque brought with him to talk to reporters, said it has become a habit among China's Coast Guard men to board Filipino fishing boats and haul some of their catch.
"They would pick the best ones," he said.
Mr Cejuela said the men would haul up to 4,000 pesos (S$159) worth of catch from each boat, in exchange for cigarettes, noodles and water not even worth 200 pesos.
"They'll board you twice, if you stay for more than a week," he said.
Mr Roque, though, stopped short of calling the incident a "harassment".
"You know what harassment was during the time of (former president) Benigno Aquino? Water cannons were used against them, they were rammed and subjected to live guns," he said.
He said it is enough that both sides are talking about the issue.
"We believe China will take the appropriate steps to prevent the incident from happening again," he said.