By Jaime R. Pilapil, Llanesca T. Panti and Bernice Camille V. Bauzon
WHILE the government and the public were focused on the territorial dispute at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, China moved to claim territorial rights over a huge group of reefs and shoals in the middle of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) that is touted as the largest atoll in the world—Macclesfield Bank.
The Philippines lays claim to Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha islands) and administers the atoll through the provincial government of Zambales.
Recently, however, the Chinese State Council placed the Bank, along with its claimed islets and reefs in the Kalayaan (Spratly) and Paracel islands, and their surrounding waters as a prefecture of the City of Sansha.
By upgrading the atoll’s status from county level to prefectural-level of administration, China tightened its grip on the contested territory.
State-run news agency Xinhua previously quoted an official of the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs who explained that the upgrade would “further strengthen China’s administration and development” of the three major island groups.
The Manila Times sought Malacañang and the Foreign Affairs department for comment but officials kept mum on the issue, probably to avoid further fuelling tension between Manila and Beijing.
Covering an area of 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles), Macclesfield Bank is surrounded by excellent fishing waters that can be dangerous for boats due to the submerged reefs.
It is geographically close to other contested island groups—the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and Pratas Islands.
China and Vietnam are at odds over the Paracels and parts of the Spratlys. Last Sunday, the Chinese government sent four patrol boats to the area when Vietnam declared its sovereign rights over the disputed islands.
On the other hand, China and the Philippines are in a tug-of-war over some parts of the Spratlys and Macclesfield Bank, which is located in the center of the West Philippine Sea. It is an almost entirely submarine platform measuring 115km in length with a maximum width of about 60km.
The Macclesfield Bank is also the second largest submarine bank of the South China Sea region.
Reminiscent of a sunken atoll, it consists of a broken reef rim that can be up to five kilometers in width and with average depths ranging from 12 meters to 18 meters enclosing a very deep central lagoon.
Meanwhile, Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that President Benigno Aquino 3rd has so much trust in the diplomatic skills of Ambassador Sonia Brady to resolve the issues with Beijing.
“Ambassador Sonia Brady is an old hand in Chinese affairs. She was previously our ambassador there so she has her friends, as we call [them], or contacts within the Chinese bureaucracy.
That’s something—that’s the reason why the President chose and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs recommended Sonia Brady to be the ambassador,” he said.
“And right now at least discussions will be made between the Philippine Embassy and the Chinese Foreign Ministry instead of a tete-a-tete between the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Department of Foreign Affairs,” he added.
Asked to react on an article published in People’s Daily of China, which said that the Philippines was deliberately stirring up tensions in the West Philippine Sea, Lacierda warned the Chinese leadership to be careful of what they are saying.
“Can I say to the Chinese xiao xi ni tien! Be a little careful about your statements. The transcript, as Secretary Carandang said, would show the context by which the statement was made by the President. So there’s no issue to us. We do not view it as a provocative statement,” he said.
Last Tuesday, Strategic Communications Secretary Ramon “Ricky” Carandang disclosed that the government has been planting radars along the country’s coastlines to monitor the sea lanes, under a project he called “Coast Watch.”
This would be apart from a plan by the President to request the US military to help in monitoring its territories by using P3C Orion spy planes.
“We have taken a number of actions that try to enhance our ability to monitor our sea lanes.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Coast Watch. Coast Watch is a series of radars that we’re putting up around our territory with assistance from countries like Australia and the United States. So you have to view these surveillance flights, if they happen, in the context of a general effort to do that. Now, if nobody feels that Coast Watch is provocative, then they should not be viewed as provocative either,” he said.
Carandang said that every country has the right to monitor its territory and to do whatever means it sees necessary.
For his part, House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez of Quezon province and Pastor Alcover of the Alliance for Nationalism and Democracy (ANAD) said the Philippines will be perpetually at risk of being bullied by China without United States’ intervention in the Panatag standoff.
“I will welcome any kind of aid that will give us decent protection against intrusions. It is humanly impossible to protect our whole coastline [as an archipelago]. With air surveillance, we can catch them [intruders],” Suarez said in a press conference.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos), the Panatag Shoal belongs to the Philippines since it is located within Manila’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Both Philippines and China are signatories to the Unclos.
“If we are not going to come up with a deliberate move, we will get stomped by these people. The security of this country has no tag price. It is non-negotiable. It [President’s decision to seek US] is a just request,” Suarez added.
As it is, Suarez cited that intrusions from foreigners in the Panatag Shoal, as well as in other fishing grounds in the country, remain rampant because the Philippines cannot patrol its vast coastline by itself.
“Even Taiwan exports marine products. How can that be when they do not have fishing ground and we have a lot? That is because they poach our area. That is a problem for a small nation, it is subject to abuse,” Suarez pointed out.
Alcover, for his part, noted that calling for US assistance is a matter of leveling the playing field.
“China is bullying us. There should be balance of power. We are small. We need allies,” Alcover said.
Meanwhile, a key regional security summit between members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is “not the right place to discuss the South China Sea issue,” a high-ranking official of the Chinese foreign ministry said late Tuesday.
During a regular press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that the Chinese government believes that the Asean foreign ministers meeting, which will take place later this week in Cambodia, “is an important platform for enhancing mutual trust and strengthening cooperation” between Asian neighbors.
But he reiterated that the forum is not the right place to discuss issues concerning territorial disputes in the disputed Shoal.
“The situation of the South China Sea remains stable on the whole. The communication channels between China and other parties are open and effective,” Liu said.
“China is willing to continue to hold dialogues and consultations with countries involved to solve the South China Sea issue with peaceful means,” he added.
In the forum, Liu said that his government will exchange views with various sides on China-Asean relations, East Asia cooperation, Asia Pacific security cooperation and regional and international situations.
China will also discuss in the forum the preparations for the upcoming East Asian Summits in November.
“We hope achievements can be made in enhancing mutual trust between countries in this region and maintaining regional peace, stability and prosperity,” the official said.
Also on Tuesday, a commentary in the Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said that the Philippines is orchestrating a plot to deliberately stir the tension in the disputed waters.