By Edith Regalado
The Philippine Star
DAVAO CITY, Philippines – The Philippines will send ships back to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal if Chinese vessels remain in the area, President Aquino said yesterday.
“The guidelines are very clear. If there are vessels that are not ours, we have to send back our vessels,” the President told reporters here after addressing participants in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) convention on local governance at the Waterfront Insular Hotel Davao.
“I have ordered them back (to port) because of the weather condition,” the President said, referring to a patrol boat of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) as well as a ship of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
The PCG and BFAR vessels left Panatag Shoal at the height of tropical storm “Butchoy” late last week.
“If there’s a presence in our territorial waters, then we will redeploy,” Aquino told reporters. “But if there is no other presence or other vessels that might impinge on our sovereignty, there’s no need to deploy.”
He also ruled out establishing permanent structures in Panatag Shoal.
“It is physically impossible,” Aquino said.
Philippine and Chinese vessels have squared off for more than two months at the shoal, a rich fishing ground just 124 nautical miles from Zambales.
It is also within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Philippines announced over the weekend it would withdraw its remaining two ships because of bad weather endangering Filipino crewmen.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said China would also pull out its ships, but this was later denied by Beijing.
The reports of the planned withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine ships from the area rekindled hopes that the standoff was nearing its end.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa even welcomed what was thought to be the calming of tensions between China and the Philippines, saying Wednesday that his country has called on both sides “to refrain from further escalating tensions and instead promote peaceful settlement by diplomatic means.”
The standoff began last April when Chinese “maritime surveillance” vessels came to the rescue of Chinese poachers on eight fishing boats who were about to be arrested by Philippine Navy sailors. The poachers were able to flee with their harvest of endangered corals, giant clams, and live sharks. Chinese vessels have remained in the area since then.
House Minority Leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, meanwhile, said Aquino scored a “qualified victory” against Beijing in the Panatag shoal standoff, and that his next step should be to unite the nation.
Suarez also warned Aquino not to be complacent as China appears to be determined to press harder on its claim over the shoal.
He also said the President should not be preoccupied with persecuting perceived political enemies and officials of the past administration.
“To the President’s credit, we note that the country recently won a qualified victory on the Panatag Shoal issue,” Suarez said. “The advent of bad weather forced both our vessels and the Chinese vessels to vacate the area.”
But he said China’s declaration that it has no intention to withdraw its ships from the shoal for good is a cause for alarm.
“Clearly, the battle is not yet over. We urge the President to begin to unify our nation in this continuing face-off with China, instead of dividing us with continuing persecution of his predecessor and the rest of his imagined enemies,” Suarez said. With Paolo Romero