By Aurea Calica and Pia Lee-Brago
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang yesterday maintained the Philippines would stand its ground and not be provoked by the Chinese military’s posturing in the West Philippine Sea.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the country would come up with a unified and strong stand to defend its claims before international forums.
Valte also said there were no talks for the permanent presence of US forces in the Philippines amid the West Philippine Sea row, particularly the standoff at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales.
China’s armed forces have vowed to “fulfill their duty” to safeguard their territory in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and they would collaborate closely with related governing bodies, including fishery administration and maritime law enforcement, to jointly ensure the country’s maritime rights and interests.
Nine Chinese vessels were reported to have arrived at the shoal being guarded by two Philippine vessels.
This developed as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Philippine Coast Guard yesterday reported another incident of “bullying” by Chinese vessels in the area.
Coast Guard Commander Vice Admiral Edmund Tan said a Chinese Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) 310 vessel tried to scare off two Coast Guard vessels during their turnover of the area yesterday morning.
“At 9 a.m. FLEC 310 approached a stationary BRP Pampanga 003 from her left bow, heading towards her, then at 600 yards veered away crossing past the right side of BRP 003 at a speed of 20.3 knots,” Tan said.
“At 9:15 am, FLEC 310 passed by BRP Edsa 002 from her right to the left at a distance of 200 yards and speed of 20.6 knots. In these instances, the speeding FLEC 310 generated a 2-meter wave in her wake but no damage was inflicted on our two ships, which did not react to the ‘bullying’ by FLEC 310,” he said.
DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said the actions of the Chinese vessel were properly documented by the Coast Guard.
Tan said BRP 003 departed the area at 9:25 a.m. to reprovision in Manila.
“These maneuvers by the Chinese vessel posed a danger to the Philippine vessels, which could mean a violation of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions of Ships at Sea (COLREGs),” the DFA said.
The DFA said on Friday that China dispatched more vessels as 10 Chinese ships were sighted in the area.
Hernandez said three Chinese government vessels, including the Chinese maritime surveillance ship 71, FLEC 310 and one still unidentified Chinese ship located about eight nautical miles away from the Philippines’ BRP Pampanga, remain in Panatag Shoal.
Reports to the DFA on Friday morning showed seven Chinese fishing vessels were also spotted inside the lagoon, while two unidentified aircraft flew over the area on Thursday around 10 p.m.
These were in addition to the three Chinese government ships, Hernandez said.
The Philippines only had two vessels in the area – BRP Pampanga and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel.
The deployment of more ships to the area represented increased activities by the Chinese side, Hernandez said.
China’s armed forces have vowed to “fulfill their duty” to safeguard the territory it is claiming in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as Chinese vessels continue to engage in more activities in the Philippines’ Panatag Shoal.
President Aquino, on the other hand, said the Philippines would keep showing its flag in the area while employing diplomatic means to resolve the dispute.
Aquino has also stressed that he did not want violence to erupt and a military solution would not be resorted to, as the country would continue to talk and not go to war.
Valte said Malacañang was grateful for Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s call for the Filipino people to rally behind Aquino on the issue and that it would be up to Filipinos to find ways to express their support.
She said the DFA had announced that legal experts would be formed to prepare the country’s evidence in asserting claims in the West Philippine Sea.
“Senate President Enrile’s stand on this is certainly well taken and that is why the DFA is already forming their team of legal experts that will be taking care of this,” Valte said.
She said it would be up to the DFA to decide who would compose the team of legal experts and personalities to “bolster our claim.”
Valte added the DFA would continue talking with their Chinese counterparts as regards the presence of nine Chinese vessels at Panatag Shoal that was clearly in Philippine waters based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“From what I understand, there are two surveillance (Chinese) ships and fishing vessels again in that area, not military presence. I have not seen any particular report pointing to that. But certainly we will let the Department of Foreign Affairs take this recent development into consideration and we will let them deal with their counterparts because of the recent development,” she said.
Asked if the Chinese side seemed to be taunting or provoking the Philippine side, Valte said it “is something that they have to answer for, that they have to explain in particular when the DFA addresses that particular development.”
The Senate yesterday conducted a hearing over the issue of China’s claiming Panatag Shoal.
International law expert Merlin Magallona told the lawmakers that the continued presence of the Chinese vessels in Panatag Shoal should be observed very carefully, especially if they start showing signs of aggression.
Magallona, former dean of University of the Philippines’ College of Law, told Coast Guard and Navy officials during the hearing that it should take note of the presence of any military vessels from China in the vicinity of Panatag Shoal, which the government could use to file a case against China.
He said the presence of Chinese warships or even naval vessels there could be treated as a threat of the use of force on Philippine vessels.
“If there is, then we should charge China with the threat of the use of force, which is a fundamental principle under the UN Charter,” Magallona said.
“It’s important to consider the threat of force on the part of China, especially in relation to its claim on Panatag Shoal, because it is at the same time an attempt to settle the dispute not in a peaceful manner. I think we should alert the international community and we will get a good opinion out of it if we make a protest with China,” he added.
Enrile said the Navy and Coast Guard should look out for those surveillance vessels, which he said would most likely be armed.
While the threat of an attack by Chinese vessels is always there, Enrile said he is optimistic that the Chinese would not commit the mistake of firing on Philippine vessels because of the repercussions this would have on them.
“One reason why China will not dare fire on any Philippine military vessel in that area is because we have treaty alliance with an equal superpower in the world, in fact the only one in the world right now, America, and we can invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) if China will make the error of firing at us,” he said.
“That will squarely come under the ambit of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Any attack on any vessels of the contracting parties within the Pacific area and the South China Sea, within the treaty area of the MDT, is an attack on the other,” he added.
Enrile said China has been trying to avoid bringing the dispute before the international arena because this could bring the US into the fray.
No permanent US presence
Valte, on the other hand, stressed the Philippines would only seek assistance from the US to improve the country’s defense capabilities and there was no agreement for new bases being discussed.
“Permanent presence? If this is something similar to any basing agreement, we have already said that that is not in the works,” Valte said, reacting to some lawmakers’ suggestions that the US be asked to station forces permanently in the country to boost its defense against territorial incursions.
In 1991, the Philippine Senate voted not to renew a lease agreement that would have kept Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base.
This effectively “limited” US soldiers’ presence in the country to joint military exercises under the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement.
The Philippines and the US also have the long-standing MDT.
Valte said US assistance in upgrading the Philippine military’s capabilities would be discussed when Filipino officials meet with their American counterparts in Washington on April 30.
“Certainly we have always been on the look out to upgrade our military capabilities and we hope that this meeting will push us further down that road,” Valte said.
Also asked how Filipinos could unite and rally behind Philippine claims in the West Philippine Sea, Valte said, “How they should show it is entirely up to the people. You cannot dictate on people how they wish to show their support. But that is certainly a very (good development).”
The military’s Northern Luzon (Nolcom) commander Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara said the situation remains stable in the area.
Nolcom has military jurisdiction over Panatag Shoal, a rock formation located 124 nautical miles off Zambales that is being claimed by China.
The standoff at Panatag Shoal began on April 10 when two Chinese surveillance ships stopped the Philippine Navy flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar from accosting eight Chinese fishing boats suspected of poaching.
Alcantara said the Chinese FLEC vessel, after establishing her intimidating presence in the area, is no longer around but two Chinese maritime vessels remain.
He said the Coast Guard’s BRP Pampanga and a ship from the BFAR are in the area, closely watching developments.
“The prevailing security situation remains stable,” Alcantara said.
He also urged a peaceful resolution of the standoff through diplomatic channels.
Alcantara, however, said the military is also doing its share in addressing the security situation in the area under the guidance of the national leadership, specifically coming from the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, along with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, flew to the US for a scheduled meeting tomorrow with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
While the scheduled US meeting will tackle wide-ranging political and economic issues including the forthcoming state visit of President Aquino, it is also expected that the 2+2 meet will also take up the prevailing standoff in Panatag Shoal.
For his part, AFP chief Gen. Jessie Dellosa said diplomacy should go hand in hand with capability to defend the Philippines’ rights as a sovereign nation.
Dellosa made the statement during the closing ceremony of the Balikatan exercises in Camp Aguinaldo.
“It is apparent that a practical blend of the concepts/ of ‘might is right’ and ‘right is might’ should be explored, shared among friends and allies, and eventually put to good use,” Dellosa said.
“For the Philippines, striking a workable mix may also require increasing capacities to defend its dignity and its rights as a sovereign nation,” he added.
While diplomacy is the “normative path to tread,” Dellosa it should be matched with capabilities “to attain stability, security and development.”
“That is the prevailing logic of Balikatan and the strategic partnership of our forces. It is what it is. It will be into the future,” the military chief said.
Critics claimed the lack of military equipment had made it easy for China to bully the Philippines.
Officials have acknowledged that the standoff highlights the urgent need to beef up the military’s capabilities.
Early this month, Gazmin said China might have been bullying the Philippines because of its weak military capability.
“In our region, in terms of the capability of the armed forces, we are the weakest,” Gazmin said in a press briefing last April 3.
“We are below par. If you are the bully, you will look for the weakest,” he added.
Gazmin nevertheless said the modernization efforts of the armed forces is not directed towards China or any particular country.
“This is for our protection to make sure that our laws are enforced and we are able to protect our territorial waters,” he said.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma yesterday said Filipinos should defend their integrity and supremacy over Panatag Shoal.
Palma said Filipinos should defend what they believe belongs to them.
“In truth, I think in principle we have to defend our integrity and supremacy over the land which we believe is our very own,” he said. – With Jaime Laude, Alexis Romero, Marvin Sy, Evelyn Macairan