Thursday, June 21, 2012

Philippine ships to return to shoal if China refuses to pull out

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino yesterday said he would order government vessels back to Scarborough Shoal once the stormy weather clears, if ships from China have not left the area by then.

Speaking to reporters after attending a convention of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao at Waterfront Hotel in Davao City, Aquino said a military plane would fly to Scarborough Shoal as soon as the weather clears to see if China¿s vessels were still there.

¿If there is a presence in our territorial waters then we will redeploy [our vessels]," Aquino said. ¿If there is no presence of other vessels that might impinge on our sovereignty, then there is no need to redeploy."

Government vessels from China and the Philippines had squared off for more than two months at Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground in an area in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) claimed by both countries.

The Philippines announced over the weekend it would withdraw its remaining two vessels because of bad weather endangering Filipino crewmen, and China later said it would pull out more than 20 fishing boats for safety¿sparking hopes of an end to the standoff.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa welcomed the actions by China and the Philippines, saying yesterday that his country has called on both sides ¿to refrain from further escalating tensions and instead promote peaceful settlement by diplomatic means."

A storm that has whipped up 5-meter waves continued to lash the area Wednesday. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geographical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) said the weather may start to clear by the weekend. The weather bureau warned ships and fishing boats to stay away from the rough seas.

A Philippine government official told The Associated Press that six Chinese government ships and 30 Chinese fishing boats were sighted at Scarborough Shoal on Tuesday.

The fishing boats, which had been marooned in the shoal¿s sprawling lagoon, may have been stranded by the passing storm and may leave once the weather clears, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a lack of authority to talk to reporters.

Guidelines clear

Aquino said the military plane was supposed to fly to the shoal on Monday, but did not get clearance due to the bad weather.

If the plane cannot see conditions below because of the bad weather, it is pointless to send it there, Aquino said.

¿The guidelines are very, very clear," he said. ¿If there are vessels there that are not ours, we will send back our ships."

The president defended his decision to order home a Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources survey ship on Friday night as Typhoon ¿Butchoy¿ roiled the contested waters off western Zambales. Unlike fishing boats, he said, the two vessels could not take shelter in the shoal¿s lagoon.

The Philippine withdrawal, however, proved premature. China ordered the pullout of its fishing boats from the lagoon, but not its government vessels outside the lagoon.

On Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said Beijing had no plans of withdrawing its vessels from Scarborough Shoal, which it calls Huangyan Island.

What commitment?

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters on Friday that China had committed to call the vessels back. But on Monday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wondered where the commitment that Del Rosario had announced had come from.

In Manila, the Chinese Embassy said there was no such commitment.

But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday that ¿consultations¿ with China were going on for the removal of Chinese ships outside the shoal¿s lagoon.

¿Consultations are ongoing on the remaining ships in Bajo de Masinloc (the Philippines¿ name for Scarborough Shoal) with the objective of defusing the tension in the area," DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said in a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Verbal agreement

In an interview over Radyo Inquirer Wednesday morning, Hernandez said the verbal agreement between China and the Philippines on the withdrawal of vessels only covered those inside the shoal¿s lagoon.

Hernandez said China had pulled out two of its government vessels.

¿On Sunday, they announced that they would pull out the fishing vessels from the lagoon," Hernandez said.

China¿s pullout from the lagoon was expected ¿as soon as possible," he said.

There will be no vessels inside the lagoon after that point, he said, ¿but the two sides are still talking about the vessels outside the lagoon."

Maintain presence

Senator Loren Legarda, chairperson of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the Philippine Coast Guard should maintain the Philippine presence at the shoal.

In an interview with the Inquirer, Legarda said she also wanted the government to quickly redeploy the BFAR scientific ship.

Legarda criticised the DFA for telegraphing its punches.

¿We should not negotiate using a microphone, so to speak," Legarda said. ¿These are sensitive issues, especially that there will be a changing of leadership in China. Tact is an important element in diplomacy, so that no miscommunication occurs."

Legarda, however, favored the government¿s strategy to resolve the dispute through diplomatic means.

Repair relations

Senator Francis Escudero opposed the decision to send back the Coast Guard ship to Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippine also calls Panatag Shoal.

What Escudero wanted the government to do was to ¿repair the damaged relations¿ through ¿confidence-building measures (such as) focusing on the things that we agree on, and setting aside our differences for the meantime." - With reports from Tina G. Santos, Michael Lim Ubac and AP