By: Amando DoronilaPhilippine Daily Inquirer
11:33 pm | Sunday, July 8th, 2012
The Cabinet meeting on Thursday left the country in suspense over how soon the Aquino administration will send ships back to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to reassert the Philippine claim over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) amid expanding Chinese maritime incursions in the area.
Since President Aquino ordered back home a Coast Guard ship and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel—both not naval gunboats—and temporarily ended a two-month standoff with a much larger Chinese flotilla, shadow war games have taken place.
A fishing ground of Filipino fishermen, the shoal is a formation of rocks and corals in the West Philippine Sea, 220 kilometers west of Zambales province. It is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but China has claimed it is part of its hegemonic territory, the South China Sea, based on old maps, which Filipino law of the sea experts reject as an exuberant claim.
Over the past two months of the standoff, pressure has been mounting on the Aquino administration to stand up to China’s bullying tactics with its demonstrations of maritime—not necessarily naval—power.
Filipino public opinion has been increasingly affronted by the Chinese show of force of its “soft” maritime power, riding roughshod over the territorial claims of smaller neighbors in an area believed to be rich in marine resources and lying in strategic trade routes.
The face-off at Panatag Shoal confronts the Aquino administration with its toughest foreign policy test involving relations with China and fueling the region’s hottest source of tensions.
The administration is feeling the heat stemming from the public disquiet over the humiliating imbalance in the status of forces at the shoal.
There appears to be a strong undercurrent to send back the two Philippine ships that have been pulled out of the shoal—a withdrawal that has rankled nationalist sensitivities as an abject surrender to Chinese blandishment and intimidation.
The administration’s response to this clamor is that on Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, a “framework” on how to deal with the increasing Chinese aggressiveness at the shoal has been drafted, and this remains a “secret.”
Two weeks ago, the President threatened to send back the ships to the shoal unless China withdrew all of its ships. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), China committed to withdraw its vessels.
A reciprocal withdrawal was expected to have ended the confrontation at the shoal, but China withdrew only its fishing boats and kept its maritime vessels for effective control of the area.
As of Friday morning, China had two surveillance ships and one fisheries patrol vessel at the shoal.
No Chinese pullout
On June 27, the DFA reported that Chinese fishing vessels had not left the lagoon of Panatag Shoal and that Chinese government ships continued to patrol the vicinity of the shoal. A Philippine Navy reconnaissance plane reported sighting 23 Chinese fishing boats—six large vessels and 17 dinghies—in the lagoon.
The Navy plane also sighted five large Chinese government ships—three China maritime surveillance ships and two fisheries law enforcement command vessels—outside the lagoon.
The Philippines has had no vessels in the area to assert its sovereignty after the President ordered the pullout of its two ships.
Hide and seek
The Navy chief, Vice Adm. Alexander Pama, said the Chinese ships came and went, apparently taking turns in some kind of a rotation. The Chinese were playing hide-and-seek with our ships.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the absence of Philippine vessels in the area weakened the country’s claim to sovereignty and said he had recommended sending back the ships. But at the same time, he said “the weather is not good, the waves are huge, our ships may not withstand them.”
Both China and the Philippines have declared fishing bans at the shoal, ostensibly for resource conservation.
Filipino fishermen have stayed away from the shoal since the government declared the ban in mid-May, but there were reports they were driven away by Chinese maritime vessels while Chinese fishermen were under the protective watch of Chinese government vessels.
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Tags: China , Diplomacy , Government , Maritime Dispute , panatag shoal , Philippines , Scarborough Shoal , South China Sea , West Philippine Sea
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