AFP: Up to 5 Chinese ships circling Panatag, Ayungin

MANILA, Philippines — Armed Forces chief Gen Emmanuel Bautista said 2 to 5 Chinese ships are circling the Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal) and Panatag (Scarborough) shoals at any given time and some have gone as close as 2 nautical miles or about 4 kilometers to Ayungin. 

These are combinations of Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships, fisheries law enforcement vessels, and fishing ships. Bautista said CMS ships and China PLA navy vessels sometimes escort the fishing vessels.

Ayungin is located 105.77 nautical miles off Palawan and belongs to the Kalayaan Group of Islands, a portion of Spratlys that the Philippines is claiming. China, Vietnam and other countries also occupy various islands and features in the Spratlys. Up to 30 Chinese vessels were spotted circling the shoal last May, prompting the government to file a protest with the Chinese embassy in Manila. 

Panatag, on the other hand, is located 124 nautical miles off Zambales. It was the site of a standoff between Manila and Beijing in 2012.

The Philippines filed a protest against China over the West Philippine Sea before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Bautista said this is the country's primary strategy to resolve the conflict. 

"We submit to the arbitration as our primary means of resolving conflict in the West Philippine Sea," he said. "We have a ship there in Ayungin. We re-supply them on a regular basis. But we avoid confrontation. Most of the time, we use civilian vessels," he added.

But China isn't the only one encroaching on Philippine terrories. Bautista said fishermen from Taiwan and Vietnam have been spotted in Philippine waters. "Once in a while, we also get Vietnamese fishermen in our territory. There are still some of them undergoing trial in Purerto Princesa," Bautista said. 

"Some of them are even harvesting endangered species as we have seen in media reports," he added.

The Philippines has sought US assistance on maritime security. The second round of formal negotiations is ongoing in Washington, DC to allow increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines and to give them wider access to Philippine military bases. 

"Relative to China, we are such a small country. That is why we are tyring to leverage our alliances with our friends and our allies to collectively create that secure environment to prevent any aggression. That is part of deterrence — alliance — while we do not have wherewithal and capability to defend our territory by ourselves," Bautista said.

Bautista likened the new arrangement to a basketball team. "We need to practice together if we are to more efficiently perform and win games. That is the simple analogy to the increased rotational presence. We need more practice so we can get familiar with each other and we can be able to communicate with each other,"Bautista said. — Rappler.com