VICE-PRESIDENT Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo on Wednesday visited Occidental Mindoro in western Philippines, where she was endorsed by a local lawmaker who cited her strong stance in the sea dispute with China.

Ms. Robredo and running mate Senator Francis “Kiko” N. Pangilinan got the support of key local officials and a fisherfolk community, whose members had been left for dead in 2019 by a large Chinese fishing vessel that rammed their small fishing boat near a Philippine-claimed area in the South China Sea.

The fishermen issued a manifesto of support for the opposition tandem, Ms. Robredo’s office said in a statement on Thursday.

The ramming incident on June 9, 2019 happened near the resource-rich Reed Bank, which the Philippines calls Recto. The 22 Filipino fishermen, who were left in the open sea after their boat sank, were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.

Ms. Robredo visited the fishermen days after the incident. Each of the fisherfolk got cash aid from the vice president.

Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato, who is running for governor, endorsed the opposition tandem in a campaign rally.

“One woman bravely faced China and said she would not let them oppress our fellowmen in our own country,” Ms. Sato said at the rally in Filipino, based on a video posted on Facebook.

Filipinos will choose President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s replacement on May 9. Political analysts have said the country’s sea dispute with China is a major election issue.

Fitch Solutions Country Risk and Industry Research said in a report last year Philippine presidential frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. “appears one of the few candidates to agree with Duterte’s policy of engagement.”

Local civic groups and foreign policy experts have accused him of parroting China’s mantra in its sea dispute with the Philippines. 

Ms. Robredo has said the next government should not deal with China until it recognizes a 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed tribunal that voided its claim to more than 40% of the waterway.

She has also called for a coalition of nations against China’s militarization of the sea.

Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Jose Martin M. Andanar said Mr. Duterte would support candidates who would continue his policies.

Mr. Duterte, 77, has said he would retire from politics once his six-year term ends in June. Domestic and international groups have criticized his war on drugs that has killed thousands. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza