' Photo courtesy of Captain Manolo Ebora
MANILA, Philippines – A Chinese vessel that introduced itself as a “naval warship” harassed a Filipino-crewed commercial ship near Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea on September 30, the ship’s captain Manolo Ebora told Rappler on Wednesday, October 30.
The Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned crude oil tanker Green Aura was transiting from Nongyao, Thailand, on its way to Longkou, China, when Ebora, a Philippine Navy reservist with the rank of lieutenant commander, decided to steer the commercial ship near Scarborough Shoal off Zambales to “find out the situation.”
He wanted to verify reports of a Chinese presence there.
Scarborough, or Panatag, Shoal lies approximately 120 nautical miles from the coast of Masinloc, Zambales, where it derived its Spanish name, Bajo de Masinloc.
The Philippines, by law, considers it part of its national territory, as China claims spurious “historical rights” to it. An international arbitral tribunal declared the shoal an international fishing ground. It lies within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone where all vessels have the right to innocent passage. (READ: China using fishing vessels for surveillance, control of West PH Sea – DND)
The Green Aura had been at sea for 4 days on Monday, September 30, when it reached Philippine waters. When it came within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal at around 7:30 pm, the ship’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) detected Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels nearby.
The officer-on-watch alerted Ebora, who immediately climbed to the bridge to take the helm.
When the Green Aura came within 6 nautical miles of the shoal, it received a radio call from a nearby vessel: “Green Aura, this is Chinese naval warship calling.”
Ebora immediately took the call and responded. The initial conversation went thus:
The transmission appeared to come from one of several Chinese vessels in the vicinity, which appeared on Green Aura's ECDIS as the following:
The one named “China Coast Guard 3302” was nearest Green Aura.
The vessels were “stationary,” Ebora said, all appearing to guard the southeastern end of Scarborough Shoal where a deep portion serves as a “mouth” through which vessels could enter its inner lagoon.
Four of the vessels are registered under the Chinese Coast Guard, or “Zhongguo Haijing,” Chinese for “China Maritime Police.” A 5th vessel’s name could not be detected by ECDIS, which could have meant its Automatic Identification System (AIS) was turned off, Ebora explained.
The CCG used to be a civilian agency, until China placed it under the control of its People’s Armed Police in March 2018, turning it into a paramilitary force.
Photo courtesy of Captain Manolo Ebora
What made Ebora and the officers onboard the Green Aura anxious on that evening of September 30 was the other vessel calling itself a “naval warship.”
“‘Yun ang pakilala nila. Hindi naman ‘coast guard’ eh, kaya ako nagtaka rin. Ang nakalagay nila, ‘coast guard’ pero makikita mo sa video, hindi naman nila sinabing sila’y ‘Chinese coast guard’ kundi ‘Chinese warship,’” Ebora said.
(That was how they introduced themselves. It wasn’t “coast guard,” so it made me wonder. The name they put was “coast guard” but as you’ll see in the video, they did not say they were the “Chinese coast guard” but a “Chinese warship.”)
Challenge to alter course
After a few minutes, the Chinese vessel again radioed the Green Aura:
The crew on the Chinese vessel wanted the Green Aura to stay 10 nautical miles away from the shoal as it sailed northeast in the direction of Bolinao, Pangasinan.
Ebora ignored the Chinese vessel’s challenge and maintained the Green Aura’s course. Several minutes later, he and his crew noticed the China Coast Guard 3302 start moving in the direction of the Green Aura’s path, apparently to block its passage.
Then, they received yet another challenge from the “Chinese naval warship”:
The airwaves went silent for about a minute, after which Ebora insisted, “Chinese warship, why should I alter my course? Is this a Chinese territory? I [am] just [making] innocent passage in the Scarborough. But this is closest to the Philippines.”
There was no immediate response from the Chinese vessel, but a faint radio transmission from yet another vessel was heard addressing the “Chinese warship” in fluent English. Ebora could not identify its source.
A few minutes later, the Chinese vessel again challenged the Green Aura, using the Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal to tell Ebora to steer away from it. Ebora rebuffed the Chinese crew.
“This is Scarborough Shoal. It’s not [Huangyan Dao]. We are just passing. May I know, is this a Chinese territory water? I think it’s not a Chinese [territorial] water,” he radioed back.
Ebora kept insisting on innocent passage as the Chinese vessel went silent for several minutes. Then, a different Chinese voice came on, using a sterner tone.
“This is China Coast Guard. This area is under the jurisdiction of Chinese government. You should keep away from this area,” it told the crew of the Green Aura.
Photo courtesy of Captain Manolo Ebora
Ebora tried to insist on his position, but the Chinese crew started responding in Chinese. The China Coast Guard 3302 also started to tail the Green Aura in an effort to drive it away.
“‘Nung pahuli na, medyo kinabahan ako, at nakalampas na rin ako sa Scarborough, medyo lumayo na ako,” Ebora said. (Towards the end, I got nervous, and since I was already past Scarborough, I started to veer away.)
That the Green Aura came within 6 nautical miles of the shoal should not have been an issue regardless of which country owned it because it qualified as innocent passage in the usual practice among mariners, said Ebora, who has been a commercial ship captain for 15 years.
The China Coast Guard 3302's position intending to cut the Green Aura in its course and then tailing it afterwards violated navigation rules. "Mali 'yon," Ebora added. (That was wrong.)
China has wielded de facto control over Scarborough Shoal since June 2012, after a nearly two-month standoff with Philippine government vessels. Chinese coast guards have since restricted Filipinos’ access to the shoal.
The incident reflects what former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio called China’s “double standard” in restricting innocent passage in areas it claims as territory.
“Medyo parang mali o masakit kasi sarili mong bansa, itataboy ka. Ikaw, para bang bahay mo, itaboy ka. Anong pakiramdam mo, di ba? Masakit ‘yon,” Ebora said. (It’s kind of wrong or hurtful that in your own country, you’re shooed away. It's like being kicked out of your house. How would you feel, right? It hurts.)
“Tapos sarili mo ring pagkain, gaya nung isda para sa mangingisda, iba yung kumukuha. Sarili mong kayamanan na dapat ikaw ang nakikinabang, iba ang nakikinabang,” Ebora went on, referring to China’s fishing blockade against Filipinos, who have long depended on Scarborough Shoal.
(Then even your own food, like the fish for the fishermen, is taken by others. Your own resources that you should be enjoying are benefiting others.)
A fisherfolk leader from Zambales told Rappler in September that the volume of their catch has declined by 80% since they were kicked out of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. (READ: Like a thief in your own territory)
"There is no justice," Ebora added.
Photo courtesy of Captain Manolo Ebora
Proud to have made a stand
After the incident, Ebora gathered the Green Aura’s 21 crew members to tell them what happened, and to warn them of possible consequences when they dock in China. They all worried that the Chinese government would accuse them of intrusion.
“Pero proud din naman sila, palibhasa nga kami’y puro Pilipino, na hindi kami nagpa-bully, at saka ipinaglaban namin 'yung karapatan namin bilang Pilipino,” Ebora said. (But they were proud, too, since we're all Filipino, that we did not let ourselves be bullied, and that we stood up for our rights as Filipinos.)
The next morning, when the Green Aura passed near Bolinao, Ebora called up the local Philippine Navy station to report the incident. The Navy confirmed that the area where the incident happened was within Philippine waters, Ebora said.
The Green Aura arrived in Longkou, China, on October 6. All 22 crew members were able to stay in China without incident.
Ebora came home to the Philippines on Tuesday, October 29. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.