MANILA, Philippines – “We are prepared to secure our sovereignty.”
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario said the Philippines is prepared to defend its rights over the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), the site of a standoff between a Philippine Navy ship and a group of Chinese civilian and military seacraft.
In a press conference at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday, Del Rosario reiterated the Philippines’ claim over the shoal, which lies at a distance of 124 nautical miles west of Zambales, in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The press conference came after Del Rosario met with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing on the matter.
“I made it clear that the Scarborough Shoal is an integral part of the Philippines,” he told reporters. The Chinese refer to the island as Huangyan Island.
He also said that the Chinese fishing vessels were conducting illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species in the area, a violation of Philippine laws.
Del Rosario added that the Philippine Navy was there to “enforce our laws” in the area.
Because China is also stating the shoal is part of their country, Del Rosario said this has created an “impasse” in trying to resolve the dispute, citing it as a “real challenge for us over the agreement to keep talking.”
“We resolve to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue,” he said.
The country’s chief diplomat said the Philippine claim is supported by the fact that it is within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and that it is backed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“China’s claim is not supported by UNCLOS; We are standing firm on our position… on sovereignty and sovereign rights over the area,” he added, saying the East Asian country’s claim is based on historical records only.
The country also has lodged a diplomatic protest regarding the matter.
But Beijing said it had also protested to Manila over the incident.
“We have launched solemn representations with the Philippine side over the Philippine vessels and patrol boats harassing Chinese fishing boats and fishermen,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
Vice Admiral Alexander Pama, chief of the Philippine Navy, recounted the incident, saying the fishing vessels were found to be carrying giant clams, live sharks, and endangered marine species.
The 10 Chinese ships were monitored by the Philippine Navy’s flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15), when it was deployed there Sunday, April 8, for maritime patrol in the area.
“In the course of its patrol, PF-15 confirmed the presence of the eight (8) Chinese fishing vessels anchored inside the lagoon of the Shoal. The PN vessel remained in the vicinity of the Shoal for continuous monitoring of the fishing vessels,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
On Tuesday, April 10, the Philippine Navy ship sent a boarding team to inspect the vessels and collect evidence of their catch, as per Rules of Engagement. The DFA said the boarding team found large amounts of “illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks” in one vessel alone.
Afterwards, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar reported 2 Chinese maritime surveillance ships, the Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, “managed to sail at the mouth of the Shoal, placing themselves between PF-15 and the eight (8) Chinese fishing vessels, thus preventing the arrest of the erring Chinese fishermen.” (Read more about BRP Gregorio del Pilar here.)
As of Wednesday, the standoff remained in the area.
Vice Admiral Edmund Tan, commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard, said that since the PCG is a civilian organization, they will defer to the DFA for further statements on the matter.
The Coast Guard will also deploy vessels in the area to monitor the situation. “Our role is just to be there, to show our presence,” Tan said.
“Other outrigger boats,” presumably Philippine civilian fishing vessels, are also in the area, added Pama.
Del Rosario said the tensions come after the two countries recently declared a series of cultural exchanges and events to be held within the year.
“We will continue to talk and see how a closure to this issue can be moved forward,” he said.
Alex Chua, Chargé d’Affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Beijing, was also summoned, but was not presented a note verbal by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the DFA chief said.
However, Del Rosario said it is possible that the Philippines will be issued a note verbal by China, since the country also gave Ambassador Ma one.
Earlier, China also reiterated their stance over the disputed formation, a triangular shaped group of rocks and reefs surrounding a lagoon. China, in a statement released by their embassy in Manila, said the Philippines should end its “illegal” activities in the area.
The dispute is just one of dozens of territorial spats in the area commonly known as the South China Sea, with Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam also staking claims to numerous islets and parts there. – Rappler.com