MANILA, Philippines - A Chinese fishery and maritime law enforcement ship – considered the most advanced in its class – has arrived in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales and linked up with another Chinese vessel involved in a standoff with a Philippine Coast Guard search and rescue vessel.
The newly arrived ship is the biggest so far among the ships deployed by China to assert its claim to the shoal, which is 124 nautical miles from the Zambales town of Masinloc and is well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) chief, said the ship arrived at around 6 a.m. yesterday and joined a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel with bow No. 71.
“The two other Chinese maritime surveillance ships with bow No. 75 and No. 84, which we earlier monitored to be also in the area, are no longer around. These reports are all based on visuals because our Coast Guard vessel there has no radar-tracking capabilities,” Alcantara said.
Only the BRP EDSA II, a Coast Guard search and rescue ship, remains in Panatag Shoal to serve as a symbol of Philippine defiance of China’s incursion.
“BRP EDSA II immediately reported visual of the huge Chinese vessel upon her arrival in the area at about 6 a.m. yesterday,” Alcantara said.
Earlier, it was reported in Chinese media that FLEC 310 departed Guangzhou last Thursday for an undisclosed mission in the South China Sea.
Philippine officials have called the deployment of FLEC 310 a more intense form of bullying by China because one of the tasks of the vessel is to protect Chinese fishermen.
Four large Chinese vessels and five smaller ones operated in the shoal unmolested last Friday.
No fishing activity was reported yesterday, according to Alcantara.
“We are only monitoring the presence of two Chinese vessels in Panatag Shoal, the FLEC 310 and CMS 71. We don’t really know if there are other Chinese vessels lurking around because our search and rescue ship has no radar-tracking capabilities,” Alcantara said.
The Department of National Defense, on the other hand, wants China to explain the latest deployment amid ongoing diplomatic initiatives.
“We wish to know the intention and we continuously call on our Chinese friends to work jointly with us to find a peaceful settlement of this matter,” defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.
“We call on their actions to be geared toward the peaceful resolution of the matter and not derail the diplomatic initiative that we have,” he added.
Despite reports of China’s latest incursion, Malacañang reiterated its appeal for sobriety as Filipino fishermen have joined the chorus of condemnation of China.
The University of the Philippines, meanwhile, took down its website Friday after it was allegedly hacked by unidentified supporters of China.
“We have always conducted our actions knowing that our goal, one of our immediate goals, is really to de-escalate tensions. This will be to the benefit of all parties if tension is really lowered and we hope that it will help in the negotiation,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said over radio station dzRB.
Valte also said it would be up to Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to determine whether the Philippines should ask Beijing to replace its current ambassador Ma Keqing, who was reportedly becoming impolite and impatient in talking to Philippine officials.
“We will let the DFA take the lead on that one,” Valte said.
Valte said it was not the Philippines that was aggravating tensions in Panatag Shoal.
“That is a matter of perspective and maybe from our side our commitment was to de-escalate tensions and we are doing just that. We have been consistently reiterating that the diplomatic track is the track that we have chosen to take and that everything that we do is in furtherance of taking that track,” Valte said.
Valte added the security of government websites would be strengthened after the UP hacking incident.
She also said it would be up to the Philippine Coast Guard to protect Filipino fishermen sailing to Panatag, originally called Bajo de Masinloc during the Spanish period.
She said it would be advisable for Filipino fishermen to avoid the area for the time being.
Take a stand
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said other ASEAN members should make a stand on the issue if they want to preserve freedom of navigation in the region.
“I think since the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the West Philippine Sea are of great importance to many nations, all should consider what China is endeavoring to do in the Panatag Shoal in order to pursue its so-called full sovereign rights over the entire West Philippine Sea on the basis of their 9-dash claim using a historical record that is clearly baseless,” del Rosario said.
“All, not just the Philippines, will ultimately be negatively affected if we do not take a stand,” Del Rosario added.
Del Rosario arrived last Friday from the US where he led in campaigning for the candidacy of Supreme Court Justice Florentino Feliciano for a seat in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ elections will be held on April 27.
“We limited our focus on these two initiatives, preferring to discuss the overall topic involving the West Philippine Sea during our ‘2 plus 2’ meeting scheduled a little over a week from now,” Del Rosario said, referring to his coming meeting with US officials on April 30.
“I think what’s happening is they (countries) respect the process that this issue is being discussed by both sides and therefore they are holding their horses to weigh in on this issue,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said in a press briefing, referring to ASEAN’s silence.
“We have not heard anything from ASEAN because maybe they respect that there is a discussion involving the Philippines and China and they would ask us if they want to weigh in on (this issue) at this time,” Hernandez said.
“It has to be resolved soon. We’re a small nation dealing with a big nation and we’re doing our best to assert our sovereignty and our sovereign rights in this area. We’re happy we have the support of our people,” he said.
“I understand the fishermen are a little bit worried about their safety, as they have been hearing that the Chinese would like them to leave the place, so I think they prefer not to go there this time,” Hernandez said, reacting to reports that Filipino fishermen were now avoiding the Panatag Shoal area.
The Philippines declared on Friday that it would proceed to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) “unilaterally” to resolve the territorial dispute if China would not join Manila in defending its own position before the United Nations-backed tribunal.
Hernandez said China violated the agreement with the Philippines not to undertake any action that would aggravate the situation in Panatag Shoal with its deployment of more vessels in the area.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic cable released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks said China could not specify a historical document to support its claims to disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea.
In diplomatic cable 08BEIJING3499 sent to Washington by the US embassy in Beijing on Sept. 9, 2008, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official and a local scholar could not identify specific historical records to justify China’s “Nine Dashes” claim that covers the whole Spratlys and areas within other countries’ exclusive economic zones.
MFA Department of Treaty and Law Oceans and Law of the Sea Division Deputy Director Yin Wenqiang told a US embassy political officer on Aug. 30, 2008 that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.”
“Yin admitted he is not aware of the historical basis for the ‘Nine Dashes’ and only mentioned unspecified ‘Chinese historical documents’ that indicate the basis for China’s claims on territory west of the Philippines,” the US embassy official said.
According to Wikileaks, Yang said China’s claims “date back to ancient times, prior to the development of the modern nation-state.”
“Neither MFA’s Yin nor Beijing University’s Yang could specify a historical document that indicated the basis for the demarcation of the ‘Nine Dashes’,” the cable added. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Perseus Echeminada, Aurea Calica - By Jaime Laude