MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines said on Monday it has asked Beijing to stop the Chinese coast guard from taking the catch of Filipino fishermen in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, describing such actions as unacceptable.
Local broadcaster GMA News last week aired a report that said Chinese coast guard patrols had made a habit of taking the best catches from fishermen in the area.
The report included cellphone video reportedly taken by a Filipino fisherman in May that appeared to show two Chinese coast guard personnel boarding his boat and taking some of his catch. Reuters was not able to independently verify the report from GMA.
“We have addressed this issue with the Chinese and we are demanding that the Chinese take steps to stop the Coast Guard from doing these acts,” Harry Roque, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, told a media briefing.
He said China should discipline its coast guard and that such actions were unacceptable, although he added he did not think they amounted to “harassment”.
In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday the coast guard “consistently operated in accordance with the law” and that it was carrying out a “conscientious investigation” into whether the incidents described in the media reports had taken place.
Geng said at a press conference that the coast guard existed to keep peace and order and had in the past provided humanitarian assistance to Philippine fishermen.
China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and forced fishermen from the Philippines to travel further for smaller catches, reflecting tensions in the South China Sea where several countries have overlapping claims.
But relations between China and the Philippines have improved markedly under Duterte, who is negotiating billions of dollars worth of loans, investments and trade deals with China.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, stopped repelling Filipino boats in late 2016 and allowed Filipinos to fish on the rocky outcrop, 200 km (124 miles) from the Philippines.
Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Sam Holmes