But President says dispute has to be settled soon
By Christine O. Avendaño, DJ Yap
Philippine Daily Inquirer
On the 13th day of a standoff with Chinese vessels off Zambales province, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) sent a craft to join a Philippine Coast Guard search and rescue ship at Panatag Shoal.
“It’s the showing of the flag,” President Benigno Aquino III told reporters on Monday. “We believe these are our waters. Therefore, our vessel has the right to be in our waters.”
But Mr. Aquino stressed that his government was seeking a diplomatic solution to the impasse and that he had appealed to partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take a stand on the territorial dispute.
“The dispute has to be settled. It can’t be left hanging forever,” the President said.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Northern Luzon Command, said the BFAR ship hooked up with BRP Pampanga on Monday afternoon in the cluster of reefs and islands known internationally as Scarborough Shoal. China claims the area as part of its territory and calls it Huangyan Island.
Pampanga relieved BRP Edsa, which returned to base on Monday to replenish provisions and refuel.
Alcantara told reporters at Camp Aguinaldo in a phone interview that the fisheries craft would “check on our marine resources there.”
He said the lone Coast Guard vessel was keeping watch as Chinese fishing ships and a gunboat appeared intermittently in that pocket of the West Philippine Sea, known to the rest of the world as the South China Sea.
“We saw two Chinese fishing boats but these were outside the shoal. Our Coast Guard ship saw the CMS 71 but they had no visual contact of the other, the FLEC, 310 (gunboat)… but we assume it’s still there,” he said.
“Everything is normal,” he said, describing the situation as “stable.”
He said the BFAR ship had no intention of boarding the Chinese fishing vessels.
“That’s not their job. Their only job is just to check our fisheries resources and our marine resources,” Alcantara said.
In an interview on ANC television, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Monday the Coast Guard was staying in the shoal 220 kilometers west of Zambales.
“We will leave when we’re ready to leave, not when we’re told to leave,” Del Rosario said, referring to Beijing’s demand last week that the Philippines withdraw vessels from Panatag.
He warned that the Chinese moves were threatening freedom of navigation in the vital sea lane. “I think the current standoff is a manifestation of a larger threat to many nations,” he said. “They should be concerned if they’re interested in maintaining the freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce.”
Del Rosario expressed concern over “very incomplete and even misleading information” relayed to Beijing by Chinese Ambassador to Manila Ma Keqing, who had held two rounds of talks with DFA officials over the impasse.
DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said Del Rosario referred to a report by Ma that the two panels had agreed to withdraw from Panatag. “There’s no such agreement yet because it’s still being discussed.”
“Also, there’s no agreement yet about the fishing boats that were poaching and which have actually collected a big amount of endangered species,” said Hernandez.
Del Rosario also announced that he planned to recommend the appointment of a career diplomat as ambassador to China after the Commission on Appointments turned down the nomination by Mr. Aquino of businessman Domingo Lee for a third time last week.
Del Rosario joined Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin in a meeting in Malacañang on Monday with Mr. Aquino.
The Panatag standoff was not discussed, according to presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, who said the talks centered on the visit by Del Rosario and Gazmin to Washington and their meeting on April 30 with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Del Rosario sprained an ankle before the Malacañang meeting and failed to attend a press briefing at DFA.
In a radio interview Monday, Gazmin declared that “the Philippines has an absolute and indisputable sovereignty over Panatag island.” He said the standoff ensued because of illegal activities by Chinese fishermen.
“If you’re in the area, I’m sure you will feel the tension because you’re outnumbered and their ships are bigger than your ships,” he said.
The standoff at Panatag began on April 10 when two Chinese surveillance ships stopped the Philippine Navy flagship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, from investigating eight Chinese fishing boats for poaching marine life. With a report from Jerry E. Esplanada
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Aquino: PHL will continue ‘showing the flag’ at Panatag Shoal
President Benigno Aquino III on Monday said the Philippines will continue “showing the flag” in the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to assert claim over the area.
He said this as the Philippines deployed a ship from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to the shoal, where Philippine and Chinese vessels have been engaged in a standoff for more than three weeks now.
“We will remain showing the flag,” Aquino told reporters in a chance interview.
The BFAR marine control ship will join a Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel that is already in the area.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Armed Forces’ North Luzon Command, said the marine control ship was sent to the area on check on the “marine condition” in the shoal.
China, on the other hand, has three new Chinese fishing vessels at the vicinity of Panatag Shoal, according to Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez.
“We continue to ask them [Chinese diplomats] the reason why they would like to aggravate the situation when in fact the agreement with the [DFA] Secretary and the Chinese representative was that no action should be undertaken to escalate the situation in the Scarborough shoal,” Hernandez said at press briefing.
No untoward incident
Aquino said there has been no “untoward incident” reported at the shoal so far.
“Sa report ni Coast Guard commandant wala naman daw issue so far, no untoward incident, ‘yun lang ang update. We are still maintaining our presence,” he said.
“The Coast Guard will maintain presence. We believe these are our waters therefore our vessels have the right to be in our waters,” he added.
China-Russia military exercises
Aquino believes the joint military exercises between China and Russia do not add to the tension between the Philippines and China.
“The tension is China is a superpower, it’s a nuclear power. Parang the Russian exercise does not really have anymore bearing than what is already there. By themselves napalaki na nila,” he said.
However, he said it reaffirmed that “there is 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 after,” Aquino said.
Hernandez said talks will continue on the level of DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario and Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing and the foreign minister of China and the Philippine charge d’affaires in Beijing.
He added that communication lines between the two countries are still open to try to work out a diplomatic solution to the issue at the soonest possible time.
The standoff began last April 8 when the Philippine Navy caught eight Chinese vessels allegedly poaching on waters near the shoal.
The Philippine Navy, however, failed to arrest the fisherman after two Chinese maritime vessels blocked its path. The Chinese fishing vessels has already left the area, taking the endangered marine species with them.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Panatag Shoal is part of the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Although both the Philippines and China are signatories to the UNCLOS, China continues to claim ownership of the shoal, saying it was first discovered in the 13th century during the Yuan dynasty.
The Philippines, however, has rejected China’s historical claim to the disputed territory, saying “a mere showing of long usage is not enough” to acquire a territory.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization, for its part warned of more conflicts in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) if China deploys more surveillance and patrol ships to assert its sovereignty in the region.
“More immediate conflict risks lie in the growing number of law enforcement and paramilitary vessels playing an increasing role in disputed territories without a clear legal framework,” the group said in a recent report. — KBK, GMA News