MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president's office on Monday called Chinese seizures of fish caught by Philippine fishing boats near a disputed shoal unacceptable, and presented three fishermen who described their experiences.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said he and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano raised the incidents with the Chinese ambassador in Manila, who assured them that Chinese coast guard personnel would be punished if an investigation finds the accusations are accurate.
The recent incidents at Scarborough Shoal have sparked new criticism after a TV network interviewed fishermen and broadcast a video of the alleged confiscations. China has sparked alarm with its recent actions to fortify its sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the reported installation of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on its newly built islands.
The incidents have increased pressure on President Rodrigo Duterte's government to take a stronger stance toward China's behavior in the disputed waters. Since his inauguration, Duterte has forged cozier ties with China and avoided strongly criticizing it in public.
Dozens of Filipino fishermen and left-wing activists protested at the Chinese Consulate on Monday with posters reading "I can't eat today, China stole our catch" and "I can't fish in our own seas." Some brought fish to symbolize what they called China's "robbery" and "extortion" at sea.
"What they did to our fishermen ... shows that they have claimed the area and not only that they stole the fishermen's catch that was supposed to feed their families on that day, their family went hungry because of this," protest leader Roberto Aleroza said.
Roque said the government has taken action to prevent a repeat of the Chinese actions. "The Chinese coast guard should not be taking even a kilo and we're not allowing this," he said, adding that Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed that Filipinos should be able to fish freely at Scarborough, which was seized by China in 2012.
Roque, however, suggested the Chinese actions were not an act of harassment and were just "a dent" that would not affect friendly relations between China and the Philippines. Chinese coast guard personnel at times gave noodles, cigarettes and water to Filipino fishermen in exchange for the fish, he said.
Rommel Sihuela, one of the three fishermen presented by Roque at a news conference in the presidential palace on Monday, said Chinese coast guard personnel boarded Philippine fishing boats at Scarborough and took some of their best catch against their will. "They went on board, then helped themselves in our fish containers," he said. "We just let them because they may shoo us away again if we don't allow them to take the fish."
In December, armed Chinese personnel seized fishing equipment from Filipino fishermen, he said.
Two Filipino officials told The Associated on Friday that the Philippines protested Chinese seizures of fish caught by Filipinos at Scarborough at a meeting in Manila in February. Chinese officials at the meeting "took note" of the concerns and promised to look into the incidents, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Antonio Carpio, a senior associate justice of the Supreme Court who has done extensive studies of the territorial disputes, said the Philippines could file a new case against China for violating a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing's extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea. The ruling, which China has ignored, said China violated the rights of Filipinos by preventing them from fishing at Scarborough, a traditional Asian fishing area.