'China owes us over P200 billion in West Philippine Sea damage' – Hontiveros
MANILA, Philippines – China owes the Philippine government at least P200 billion in environmental damages in the West Philippine Sea, which, Senator Risa Hontiveros said, could be used as part of the government's coronavirus war chest.
In a media briefing on Wednesday, April 22, Hontiveros said that Beijing should "foot the Philippines' coronavirus bill," as reparation for the annual losses of the country due to damaged reef ecosystems.
Hontiveros cited the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute's findings which pegged the damage in the West Philippine Sea ecosystem at P33.1 billion annually, due to China's land reclamation and illegal fishing activities.
"China has been damaging our ecosystems for over 6 years now, which means our losses would actually already amount to more than P200 billion," Hontiveros said.
"We also shouldn't allow China to continue declaring its so-called district in areas of the West Philippine Sea, while the world is occupied with this crisis that originated from China," the senator added.
Hontiveros urged Manila to file a diplomatic protest, demanding Beijing pay for the damage it caused in the West Philippine Sea, citing the Hague ruling. The senator said that the Philippines should "put that on record" internationally.
"Kahit pa tanggihan nila 'yan (Even if they refuse to pay), at the very least, government would have taken a very important stand and issued a very important political and diplomatic message," Hontiveros said.
In March, China opened two new research outposts in the West Philippine Sea, on militarized artificial islands that used to be submerged reefs. These sit on Zamora (Subi) Reef and Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, which is part of the Philippine territory.
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Manila rebuffed Hontiveros' claims and slammed what it said were the senator's "ridiculously absurd and irresponsible" remarks.
"China and the Philippines are working closely to fight the common threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this trying time, it is ridiculously absurd and irresponsible to make such remarks for the sole purpose of catching eyeballs and for selfish political gains," the China embassy said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Chinese government insisted the two countries were "friendly neighbors across the sea" as it vowed to continue providing support to aid in the Philippines' coronavirus response.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced on Wednesday, that the Philippines filed two diplomatic protests against China over its declaration of two new districts in the South China Sea and an incident where a radar gun was pointed at a Philippine Navy ship.
Hontiveros had also called on errant Philippine offshore gaming operations (POGO) firms to pay their overdue tax liabilities amounting to some P50 billion.
"We are also demanding POGOs to pay, which by law, are the taxes that they should remit to the government. Every country in the world has the right, according to their constitutions and laws, to demand payment from foreign businesses that operate within their territories," Hontiveros said.
The government is currently eyeing to reopen the opaque industry, as long as health protocols are in place. The proposal is still up in the air, as the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation said these firms could contribute to the country's coronavirus war chest.
Hontiveros reiterated her stance that POGOs should stop operating in the country. (READ: POGOs linked to crimes: Forged PH passports, money-laundering, sex trafficking)
"Let's make one last good thing, real good thing out of it. Demand them to pay P50 billion in unpaid taxes, as I don't think they will not answer to the issue on prostitution, among others. Then let them leave the country," Hontiveros said.
In 2019, tax collections from POGOs and service providers reached P6.42 billion, as the finance department implemented a crackdown on tax-evading firms within the industry. But the amount collected was still lower than the unpaid liabilities.
"Those annual revenues from the legal POGOs are even smaller than their unpaid taxes, right? And this amount does not include how much illegal POGOs owe us, and we haven't computed yet the social costs of POGOs here in the country," Hontiveros said.
"It's high time we send POGOs home," she added. – with reports from Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler.com