“Our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours; setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue,” President Aquino said in his second State of the Nation Address in July 2011.
But the Philippine Navy recently found a large steel marker bearing Chinese inscriptions and hundreds of yellow buoys in waters near Recto (Reed) Bank, an area of the West Philippine Sea where Manila has long explored for oil and gas, naval sources said.
A Reuters dispatch on Tuesday from Puerto Princesa City said one sailor reported he was on a fishing boat being used by the Navy that discovered the rubber buoys and the floating steel marker at the end of May.
The buoys stretched “as far as the eye could see,” the sailor said.
The newest discovery of Chinese markers was confirmed by two senior Philippine naval officials. One said the buoys were still there when the Navy checked the site mid-June, although the steel marker was gone. No attempt was made to remove the buoys, he said.
“Our boys tried to cut and remove the buoys but a large Chinese patrol ship emerged on the horizon and they hurriedly left,” the sailor said, adding it was unclear what the Chinese inscriptions on the steel marker meant.
The three sources declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Philippine military officials said it was the first time in recent years that such markers had been found near Recto Bank.
The sailor also said there was no hard evidence Chinese ships had placed the marker and buoys near Recto Bank, which is also claimed by Beijing.
But efforts to remove the buoys were thwarted by the sudden appearance of a Chinese naval patrol vessel, prompting the Philippine boat to flee, the sailor said in an interview in Puerto Princesa, the Philippine military’s jump-off point to the disputed South China Sea.
The Reuters report on the Chinese incursion at Recto Bank coincided with the opening hearing on Tuesday in the arbitration court in The Hague of the Philippine petition against China on Manila’s maritime disputes with Beijing.
Solicitor General Florin Hilbay will open the presentation, according to Malacañang’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario will “speak on the reason for the filing of the Philippines’ case,” said Valte, who is with the delegation. Lawyers from the Washington-based law firm Foly Hoag, led by Paul Reichler, will present the arguments.
China has refused to participate in the hearing.
The Spratly islands, where China is flexing its naval muscles as it builds seven man-made islands on top of coral reefs, lie to the southwest of Recto Bank, farther away from the Philippines.
Asked to comment on the buoys, the Chinese foreign ministry said, “We do not understand what you are talking about,” adding that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly islands and its nearby waters.
“China’s position on this is clear and consistent,” it said.
The Chinese defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, the Philippine Navy spokesman in Manila, said he had not seen any report on the discovery.
China claims most of the South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part. An estimated $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes the disputed waterway every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
Philippine military strategists have long worried that China wants to occupy Recto Bank.
One Air Force general said he suspected the buoys were put there so Chinese fishermen could tether their boats, then if the Philippine Navy tried to evict the fishermen, Chinese Coast Guard ships would appear to protect them.
In 2012, China seized Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which lies 230 km west of the Philippines, after a three-month standoff with the Philippine Navy.
China has since prevented Philippine fishermen from getting close to the rocky outcrop’s rich fishing grounds, the Philippine government and fishermen say.
The Philippine Navy has previously found markers with Chinese inscriptions around shoals in other parts of the West Philippine Sea.
In 2011, a steel marker the size of a 4-meter container was discovered in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal in the Spratlys. A Navy boat towed it away while concrete markers found in the same area last July were blown up, naval officials said.
The Philippines said in March it was suspending exploration at Recto Bank while it pursued international arbitration. Manila is seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit waters in its EEZ as allowed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
In a statement issued during a protest at the Chinese Embassy on Tuesday, the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said it believed the Philippines had a strong case.
“The arbitral tribunal should give the case due course. If the Philippines wins, then we would have gained an important legal and moral victory against China’s absurd claims. It would aid our assertion of our sovereignty and gain us the support of the international community,” said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes.
Lauro Baja Jr., former permanent representative of the Philippines to the United Nations and one of the senior diplomats who crafted the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, warned the Philippines should not fall into Beijing’s trap.
“China is being clever and smart. They frame their responses to the Philippines’ case through the issue of territorial sovereignty,” he said.
–Nikko Dizon and Niña P. Calleja, Philippine Daily Inquirer