Lorenzana defends presence of U.S. warship near Panatag

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana defended the presence of a US warship near Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, in the wake of protests from China over what it called a violation of Beijing's sovereignty. 

Lorenzana was asked by the Philippine Daily Inquirer if the Philippines is also concerned with the presence of the USS Hopper near Panatag. He answered no.

“No, for as long as they are on innocent passage. International law allows innocent passage even in territorial waters,” Lorenzana said. 

It is Beijing's declaration of sovereignty that the Philippines should protest, said Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal.

“[The Philippines] should be concerned about and protest China’s assertion of sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, and alleged threat to China’s security [on] a reef more than [744 kilometers] away from China’s mainland coast,” Batongbacal told the Inquirer.

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.

But Malacañang sought to distance the country from the recent incident between China and the US. “We do not wish to be part of a US-China intramural. The United States can take care of its interest,” Roque said.

The rocky sandbar off the coast of Zambales has been a regional flashpoint since the Chinese Coast Guard occupied the traditional fishing ground of Filipinos in 2012, claiming it is a part of its territory, as demarcated by its controversial 9-dash line. (READ: China says US warship near Panatag violated 'sovereignty')

The occupation of Panatag Shoal prompted the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to file an international arbitration case against Beijing. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration struck down Beijing's claim to a 9-dash-line territory but failed to rule on the sovereignty of Panatag, saying it is not part of its jurisdiction

The US has supported the Philippine's case against China, highlighting its position that there should be freedom of navigation in the high seas. But save for an old letter from a US envoy, the superpower fell short in making categorical statements that it will defend the Philippine's sovereignty over Panatag Shoal.

In recent years, China has actively developed maritime features in the South China Sea. 

President Rodrigo Duterte, during the presidential campaign, vowed to defend the countrys' maritime territory.

However, ties between Manila and Beijing warmed since Duterte assumed office and he has since softened his stance on the dispute. (READ: 5 ways Duterte can defend Scarborough without going to war

Panatag Shoal, which the Chinese refer to as Huangyan Island, was not reclaimed but is strictly guarded by Chinese Coast Guard ships. It is said to be the "red line" for the US. (READ: Lorenzana: US stopped China from building in Scarborough Shoal– Rappler.com