Palace mum on pullout of Chinese vessels from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal

Posted on July 29, 2012


MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang kept mum yesterday on the reported pullout of a majority of Chinese vessels that dropped anchor last week near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys region.

Some security officials, however, are skeptical about the alleged pullout of vessels and believe that the Chinese poachers may still return to the area.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said they are still awaiting the official report of the Philippine Navy on the matter.

“We have consulted with the Department of Foreign Affairs and they say that we have not gotten (the official report). So far, it only appeared in news reports,” Valte told state-run radio dzRB.

“We have not gotten any official report from the Philippine Navy so we will not comment on it. That is our understanding with the Department of Foreign Affairs,” she added.

Malacañang remained tight-lipped despite reports about Chinese fishermen bringing live corals and marine turtles without being stopped by Philippine authorities.

“We will defer comment until we have received an official report from the Philippine Navy not just on the reported pullout in the vicinity of Pag-asa Island but as well as reports that they have taken away our corals and other marine life,” Valte said.

However, security sources told The STAR that the Chinese might still return to the waters near Pag-asa Island to continue their fishing expedition.

An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China had not been honoring earlier commitments to pull out ships to ease tension in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The source said China is capable of doing it again to assert its claim in the area.

“I don’t believe they (Chinese vessels) have left the area for good. It may be temporary. They may return,” the official said.

Another source said the lack of capability has barred authorities from enforcing the country’s maritime laws.

The source said the lack of deterrents has enabled Chinese fishermen to continue poaching marine species from Philippine territory.

Valte declined to react to reports that China had launched its largest and most advanced patrol vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

Last Saturday, the Armed Forces Western Command (Wescom) reported that only two of the 20 Chinese fishing vessels that dropped anchor last Friday near Pag-asa island remain in the area.

“Except for the two remaining Chinese ships which we also monitored to be leaving the area, the rest of the Chinese fishing boats are gone,” Wescom spokesman Lt. Col. Niel Estrella said.

On Friday, the Chinese fleet composed of 20 ships was spotted to be only around five kilometers from Pag-asa, where bigger Chinese ships were previously seen harvesting corals.

The Philippines is claiming several islets, shoals, reefs and sandbars in the Spratly Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea.

China claims virtually all of the West Philippine Sea while Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping territorial claims.

China has been beefing up its presence in the West Philippine Sea recently in a move seen by observers as an effort to assert its claim on the area.

Early this month, a huge fleet of Chinese fishing vessels arrived at the contested parts of the West Philippine Sea. The fleet reportedly includes a 3,000 ton supply ship and a patrol vessel.

China’s defense ministry also bared plans to establish a military garrison on a group of disputed islands.

The troops will operate from Sansha in the Paracel Islands, which is being claimed by both China and Vietnam.

China is also eyeing the construction of an airstrip adjacent to Pag-asa Island, a Philippine-held territory in the Spratlys.

The country has also installed a powerful radar in Subi Reef, just 12 nautical miles from Kalayaan.

China also maintained its presence in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales. The Philippines’ ownership of the shoal is backed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory.

Alexis Romero

Empty boasting

THE Philippine response to China’s creation of a city that administratively gathers together the disputed territories in the South China Sea has been sober and relatively muted. Manila, along with Hanoi, has described the Chinese action as objectionable, but has not taken any overt steps (probably because there are no viable ones available to it) to signal its displeasure.

Even an announced plan to garrison an island in the Spratlys (Kalayaan Group) was let pass without comment. For come to think of it, China has the least significant military presence in that group of islands. This is on the assumption that it is useful to continue making a distinction between China and Taiwan. The latter controls the largest island in the group and its airstrip there can accommodate much bigger aircraft than the one maintained by the Philippines on Pagasa island.

Vietnam also maintains a garrison on a neighboring island and the three forces there have coexisting peacefully for a long time.

China’s planned military build up could be a game changer, but what can Vietnam and the Philippines do to prevent the Chinese from garrisoning their island? Go to war? Over the last few months, there has been a perceptible shift in the Philippine viewpoint over the disputed South China Sea territories. There has not been a repeat, for example, of the juvenile boast that the Recto (Reed) Bank is as much ours as Recto Avenue and upon whose defense we must be prepared to shed our blood.

This formulation of the Philippine claims is cockeyed. Recto is within the Philippine 200-mile exclusive economic zone where it exercises sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing natural resources.

But the UNCLOS definitely does not grant the holder of an EEZ title over the piece of territory.

Lately, military and foreign affairs officials (the latter obviously ought to know better) appear to be making a conscious effort to maintain the distinction between territorial waters and EEZ.

When a Chinese frigate ran aground at the Hasa Hasa Shoal much farther south of the Spratlys, some government officials were mumbling about “intrusions” into the Philippine EEZ. What intrusions were they talking about? The warship might have been inside the EEZ, but it was way, way beyond the 12-mile territorial waters of the Philippines.

Interdicting and driving away that warship could have been a cause of war.

Resolution of the dispute may lie far off into the future. It is in the nature of such conflicting sovereign claims. So let’s not act like a brat with not even a slingshot to back our braggadocio.

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