MANILA, Philippines - A Chinese gunboat has arrived in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, escalating tension as the standoff entered its second week, Philippine officials said yesterday.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin called the deployment of the unnamed patrol boat another violation of the country’s sovereignty by China. He said the Philippines should strongly protest the incident.
“If there’s someone who acted with restraint, it is us Filipinos… They (Chinese gunboat) entered our territory. It is well within our territorial waters,” Gazmin told radio station dzRH.
“When we saw that our maritime laws had been violated, we called the BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) and the Coast Guard came to enforce our maritime laws,” he added.
The report of the latest alleged intrusion came a day after Chinese embassy spokesman Zhang Hua declared that they have deployed only fisheries and law enforcement ships, not military vessels, in Panatag Shoal, located just 124 nautical miles from Zambales and well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“We have been very restrained up until now. One of our surveillance ships has left,” Zhang said in a text message.
Gazmin noted that MY Sarangani, a vessel commissioned by the government to conduct archaeological surveys, had been harassed by a Chinese ship. He said the researchers left the area even without completing their task.
“They (passengers of MY Sarangani) were harassed and were told to leave by the Chinese. The French divers that undertook the archaeological survey were pressured. They felt so much stress that they left without completing their mission,” Gazmin said. He maintained that the Philippines has “absolute and indisputable sovereignty” over Panatag Shoal.
In an email message to The STAR yesterday, Zhang said only one Chinese vessel – a maritime surveillance ship – was in the shoal as of April 22. “Please kindly note that yesterday afternoon (April 22), the Chinese Fishery Administration Ship Yuzheng 310 and one of the two Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships with bow number 084 have already left the Huangyan Island area. Now there is only one Maritime Surveillance Ship remaining at the Huangyan Island for its law enforcement mission,” Zhang said, calling the shoal by its Chinese name.
“As we always said, China is ready to settle this difference through friendly diplomatic consultations. The withdrawal of the two ships proves once again China is not escalating the situation as some people said, but deescalating the tension,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, Northern Luzon (Nolcom) chief, said the Philippine Coast Guard has lost sight of Chinese Fisheries Law Enforcement Control (FLEC) vessel 310.
“The Chinese FLEC is longer in the area as per our latest monitoring report but we assume that the vessel is still within the general area,” Alcantara said.
The FLEC 310 is said to be the most advanced in its class.
Alcantara also revealed that BRP Pampanga has returned to Panatag Shoal to relieve BRP EDSA 2.
Aside from Pampanga, a vessel from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is also heading for Panatag Shoal, Alcantara said.
He said two Chinese fishing vessels were spotted in the vicinity of Panatag Shoal.
“They’re outside the shoal with another Chinese maritime surveillance ship with bow No. 71. There’s no more visual for FLEC 310 but we assume it’s still there,” he said.
Armed Forces spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., meanwhile, said they are hopeful that the country will not have to engage China in a “small-scale war” as what a commentary in Chinese newspaper People’s Daily had suggested.
“The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) respects their opinion. However, we hope that this will not affect the ongoing peaceful measures and diplomatic initiatives being undertaken to resolve the issue on Panatag Shoal,” Burgos told The STAR.
“We are confident that a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the current situation in the Panatag Shoal will soon be reached,” he added.
“We still maintain constant coordination and cooperation with concerned government agencies in closely monitoring and observing the latest developments in the area,” the AFP spokesman said. “The AFP will continue to perform our constitutional mandate of protecting the people and upholding Philippine sovereignty and integrity of our national territory.”
‘Show of flag’
Amid diplomatic initiatives, the Philippines will maintain its presence in Panatag Shoal through deployment of vessels as “a show of flag.”
“At the minimum, the Coast Guard will maintain the presence… We believe these are our waters, therefore our vessel has the right to be in our waters,” President Aquino said.
The President said the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have not called to express anything about the issue. “None to my knowledge or any communications… not yet,” he said.
The President said China’s nine-dash theory claiming the whole of the West Philippine Sea has serious implications.
“Look at what is excluded and what they are claiming. So how can the others not be fearful of what is transpiring? Will this become an exclusive claim?” Aquino said.
Asked about the naval exercises between China and Russia, the President said it would not really have any bearing on the current standoff.
“Does it heighten the tension? The tension is China is a superpower, it’s a nuclear power, it has almost 13 times our population. The Russian exercise does not really have anymore bearing than what is already there. By themselves, they are already very big. So does it add? No… There’s a need to go through the various international bodies to settle the dispute. The dispute has to be settled. It can’t be left hanging forever,” Aquino said.
“We’re talking of a nuclear entity, isn’t it? How much more muscles do we have to flex? They have the capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. We are in the same continent,” he said.
“I believe that every Filipino is riding on one boat and all Filipinos have the responsibility to paddle to reach our dreams,” he said.
He said he was happy to read stories about the Philippines in Newsweek and Time that seemed to favor the country’s position.
“In Newsweek, there is a photograph praising our position to defend our territory against China. You read the caption yourselves because I might be called rude if I use the very graphic of Filipino bravery. In Time magazine, one photo of the Philippines came out with the caption: ‘The laggard of Asia is recovering the dynamism it had in the 1960s’,” the President said.
“We saw the benefits reaped from helping each other,” Aquino told participants in the Philippine Press Institute’s 16th National Press Forum on Media Accountability and Public Engagement.
“If we sow doubts, this will lead to difficulties. But if we plant hope, we will reap progress,” Aquino said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs spokespman Raul Hernandez said Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing appeared to be relaying inaccurate information to Beijing.
“One thing that the Secretary (Albert del Rosario) was saying is that it seems that some information that should have been conveyed to the Chinese government in Beijing was not very complete and even misleading,” Hernandez said.
“He was referring to the agreement that both governments will decide to withdraw their ships but there was no such agreement yet because this was still being discussed between the two sides,” he said.
Beijing also appeared to have received inaccurate information on an agreement about the fishing boats that were poaching in the area and illegally collecting a big amount of endangered species.
“It is illegal as far as our fisheries code is concerned,” he added.
Lawmakers, for their part, called leaders of Congress to use the international parliamentary arena to muster support for the Philippines in confronting China over its intrusions into the country’s territory.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño called on Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to mobilize their counterparts as part of a “diplomatic full court press” against China on the Panatag Shoal issue.
“I am calling on Speaker Sonny Belmonte and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to use our international parliamentary networks in support of the Philippine position,” Casiño said.
“As standing members of the Asian Parliamentary Association (AIPO) and the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) we should use these venues to gather international support for our sovereign claim over Panatag Shoal,” he said.
“It will not be difficult to get the support of parliaments and their individual members because our exercise of sovereignty is based in international conventions and practices,” Casiño said.
“We may not win through military might but certainly we are strong in the legal, moral and diplomatic arenas. Let’s focus on that,” he added.
“We should urge individual parliaments and parliamentarians to voice out their concern because this is not simply an issue between the Philippines and China but a regional and an international concern,” Casiño said.
Zambales Rep. Jun Omar Ebdane, whose second district covers Panatag Shoal, warned that China might be intending to put up permanent structures in the area.
Ebdane said what is happening in Panatag, which is just 124 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine coastline, is familiar.
He recalled that Chinese fishermen refused to leave Mischief Reef in the Spratlys. Later, a few huts were put up ostensibly as shelter for Chinese fishermen.
“After some months, there was already a runway and other military structures,” Ebdane told The STAR, adding the structures in Mischief Reef expanded to include a dock for submarines.
“I think the government must do everything it can to prevent this from worsening. I think the Chinese vessels should voluntarily leave,” he said.
He filed House Resolution 2322 which expresses support for the claim of Zambales that Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal is part of the province.
He cited the Carta hydrograpica y chorograpica de las Islas Filipinas by Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde in 1734 that included Bajo de Masinloc as part of Zambales.
Ebdane said in 1900 a map published by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey also included the Panatag Shoal as part of Philippine territory. With Aurea Calica, Paolo Romero, Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee- Brago, Jaime Laude - By Alexis Romero