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PH conducts maritime patrol in Scarborough, brings TV crew

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Air Force on Tuesday morning, January 23, conducted maritime patrol over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), bringing along a TV crew to show that "there was no problem" in the area.

Lieutenant Colonel Isagani Nato, spokesman of the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom), said the Philippine aircraft did not receive radio challenges from China. There were no construction activities on the shoal either.  

He said at least 4 Filipino fishing boats were also spotted in the area along with at some 4 Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels.

"Wala namang problema sa lugar noong pagpunta namin (There was no problem in the area when we went there)," Nato told reporters on Tuesday. 

The 71-seater C295 plane of the Philippine Air Force reportedly circled the shoal and stayed 5,000 feet above the waters without protests from China. It is not clear if the aircraft breached the 12-nautical-mile "territorial waters" that China is claiming. 

"Inikutan namin – two rounds – sa buong shoal covering 40 square miles.... We were almost above but around the shoal (We circled the entire shoal two times covering 40 square miles)," Nato told Rappler.

Footage of the maritime patrol operations were shared by TV network ABS-CBN. Rappler was supposed to join the aerial reconnaissance operation as member of the Defense Press Corps but was bumped off from the manifest Monday night. 

The military brought along the media to its maritime patrol operation in the wake of criticisms over Malacañang's failure to question China's "sovereignty" claim over the shoal.

Filipino fishermen spotted in Panatag

President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that the situation in the disputed waters has improved since he pushed  for warmer ties with China. Filipino fishermen were allowed to return to their traditional fishing ground.

Nato said the situation was normal despite reports of harassment that were being verified at the start of the year.

"Okay naman 'yung relationship ng mga mangingisda doon. Wala namang problema sa tingin namin (The relationship of the fishermen seem okay. We don't think there is a problem)," Nato said.

Last week, US warship USS Hopper was shooed away by China for supposedly violating its "sovereignty" when the American vessel sailed within what the Chinese refer as the 12 nautical miles territorial waters of Panatag Shoal.

But presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, himself an expert on the West Philippine Sea issue, maitained that the country's claim over Panatag Shoal is clear.

“The Philippines’ claim over Scarborough Shoal is recognized under our constitutional law and international law,” he said in a statement to reporters.

Nato said the C295 aircraft of the Philippines stayed in the area for about 30 minutes. 

Inside Philippines' EEZ

Under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries are entitled to territorial waters spanning 12 nautical miles from its coast.

Panatag Shoal is located off the coast of Zambales province. It is outside the country's territorial waters but well within its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

China refers to Panatag Shoal as "Huangyan Island" and supposedly a part of its 9-dash-line territory.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, acting on a complaint filed by the Philippines, struck down the 9-dash-line claim. It did not rule on the sovereignty of Panatag, however, saying it has no juridisction over the issue.

Nato belied claims that the Philippine military has stopped patrolling Panatag Shoal. He said at least 3 maritime patrols are conducted in the area every month. 

Coast Guard Spokesperson Captain Armand Balilo said they also conduct regular aerial reconnaissance in Panatag Shoal although its ships have stopped going there. –