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Chinese coastguard on rubber boats pass a Philippine fishing boat at the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines. The Philippines has in the past accused the Chinese coastguard of confronting its ships, including firing water cannons at them. Photo: AP

South China Sea: Filipino bishops urge Manila to ‘defend what is ours’ amid Beijing’s ‘aggression’

  • In rare move, six Filipino bishops are urging the government to partner allies to ‘defend what is ours’ in the South China Sea amid Beijing’s ‘aggression’
  • While they stood with the Philippines’ fishing folk, the Catholic leaders stressed that armed conflict over the hotly-contested sea was not a ‘moral option’
Six Filipino Catholic bishops took the rare step on Tuesday of condemning Beijing’s “aggression” in the disputed South China Sea, pressing President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr’s administration to team up with allies to “defend what is ours”, as maritime tensions between the two countries remained elevated.

In a joint pastoral exhortation, the bishops, who serve in regions surrounded by the resource-rich waterway, said the discord was not only about marine resources but the livelihood and future of the Philippines’ fishermen.

“A policy of appeasing the Chinese aggressors is worsening the situation of our poor fisherfolk,” they said in a statement whose signatories included Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Calls grow in Philippines for UN to intervene in South China Sea dispute

The prelates added the “Church stands with the fisherfolk to give voice to their fears and anxieties”.

They said it was “morally” acceptable to turn to “the friendship of allies” if diplomacy failed to yield concrete results.

“All legal means must be exhausted so that what nature has so bountifully bestowed on us may be ours and may feed generations of Filipinos yet to be born.

“And if present diplomatic efforts do not suffice, then it is permissible – morally necessary even – to have recourse to the friendship of allies who can help us defend what is ours,” the bishops said in a veiled reference to the US, with which Manila has boosted security ties and granted expanded access to its military bases.

The Catholic leaders, however, stressed that starting an armed conflict over the hotly-contested sea was not a “moral option”.

“We seek peace, and it cannot be a moral option to wage war,” they said.

Protesters rally outside the Chinese consular office in Manila to condemn China’s harassment of Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea. Photo: EPA-EFE

The bishops also took aim at the country’s leaders for “allowing our own fisherfolk to be driven out of fishing grounds over which international law recognises our rights” and urged them to step up, saying “words are not enough”.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entirety of the South China Sea – where the Philippines and several other nations have competing claims – and has rejected a 2016 international ruling that ruled in favour of Manila and found China’s assertions have no legal basis.

The Philippines has in the past accused the Chinese coastguard of confronting its ships, including firing water cannons at them.

Though the bishops had spoken openly about the social issues in the Catholic-majority country, their statement on Manila’s foreign policy was an unusual move.

They concluded their message by calling on the faithful to protect the rights and lives of the fishermen and their families, Rappler reported.

Last week, President Marcos Jnr said he would “remain firm in defending our sovereignty and jurisdiction against any provocations”, and pushed for dialogue with China.