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Philippinne Coast Guard moves in

MANILA, Philippines - A Coast Guard vessel steamed into Scarborough Shoal off Zambales yesterday to relieve a naval warship, which pulled out of the area after facing off with two Chinese vessels that had prevented the arrest of Chinese poachers.

A third Chinese vessel arrived yesterday in Scarborough, which the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal, 120 nautical miles off Zambales. The Philippine military said the third vessel is from the Chinese ministry of agriculture.

Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara, chief of the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) whose jurisdiction covers Scarborough, clarified that Coast Guard ship BRP Pampanga merely “relieved” the Navy warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which had been in a standoff with the Chinese “surveillance” ships since Tuesday.

“Our Coast Guard is supposed to enforce maritime law,” Alcantara explained.

He said the Navy ship was ordered to sail to Poro Point in La Union.

“We are seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the area,” Alcantara said.

The withdrawal of the Gregorio del Pilar came only hours after Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama declared that the flagship would remain in the area. Later, Pama said the flagship had to be withdrawn so it could load more supplies and provisions.

“It’s definitely not a retreat. There’s another ship from the Philippine Coast Guard to continue to enforce what we have started,” Pama said referring to the Pampanga.

“Their fuel is already on a critical level and their food supply is only good until tomorrow,” Pama explained.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario also said the warship’s pullout was “due to operational reasons.”

PCG spokesman Lieutenant Commander Algier Ricafrente said the mission of the 56-meter Pampanga “is to show our presence and flag in the area.” Also on board the vessel were three representatives from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

Panatag Shoal, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is an integral part of the Philippines since it falls within the 200 nautical miles of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

“The PCG is looking for a diplomatic way to settle this issue,” Ricafrente said, stressing that PCG’s function is civilian in nature.

The Pampanga, skippered by Lieutenant Commander Vincent Fiesta, is expected to remain at the shoal for five days.

Philippine and Chinese diplomats scrambled yesterday to find a possible compromise to end the standoff and save face for both sides and ease tensions. Philippine officials proposed an arrangement to break the impasse, but details have yet to be released as of press time.
Officials said the proposal was a pragmatic way to solve the standoff. The Chinese fishermen were not expected to be able to stay at the uninhabited shoal for a long time because they may run out of food and other provisions.

“We have an issue here that we’re trying to address in a civilized and friendly way. I’m hopeful that our long-standing friendship will make us arrive at a diplomatic solution faster,” Del Rosario said.

He also said Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing did not inform him of the arrival of the third Chinese vessel in the shoal.

“We’re moving forward but it’s (negotiation) still a work in progress. We’re trying to see if we can arrive at a consensus in terms of some of these issues that remain outstanding,” he said.

The Chinese embassy said the fishing boats had taken shelter from a storm in the lagoon and accused Philippine troops of harassment.

“Two Chinese marine surveillance ships are in this area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and interests,” it said in a statement. It said the shoal “is an integral part of the Chinese territory and the waters around it the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen.”

In the Communist Party’s mouthpiece the People’s Daily, Major General Luo Yuan said it’s the Philippines “last chance” to resolve its territorial disputes with China.

“The biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defend its territorial integrity,” Luo said in a commentary also published in the Global Times newspaper.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank, said on the other hand that it is “vital for the US to continue supporting the Philippines as a strong Philippine position in the South China Sea is the best way to ensure peace and prevent Chinese adventurism.”
“After all, the cutter we provided them last year is in the thick of this standoff—without it, the Philippines would never have known of illegal Chinese fishing. Bolstering the Philippines’ flagging ability to defend its territorial sovereignty, at least to a position of self-sustainability, is essential,” Robert Warshaw of the Heritage Foundation said. “If shots are fired, the US is treaty-obligated to begin formal consultations with the Philippines on how best to support it.”

Environmental issue

Malacañang said the Chinese incursion is also an environmental issue and not just territorial.

“That’s the reason why it’s more than a discussion of territory, it’s also a discussion of our environmental concern,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters in a chance interview.

“That (exploitation of the seas) is our concern as well. Part of what they (Chinese fishermen) collected were big clams and corals. And these corals as you know, we value our environment,” he stressed. “That’s one matter which we are also concerned with, the corals being part of (our territory). We are one of the countries with the richest flora and fauna, and it’s a concern for us also that the corals were taken and collected,” Lacierda added.

He also said the Navy observed the rules of engagement when its personnel informed the foreign vessels of the intrusion. He also said the deployment of the BRP Pampanga was not a provocation because the vessel performs only civilian functions.

“There are rules of engagement in boarding a vessel and those rules of engagement I believe were observed by our Navy. That’s the reason why there is no truth that they were harassed, rules of engagement were followed by our Navy personnel,” he said.

“As far as the Philippines is concerned, we observed the rules of engagement, that’s the reason why we are very confident there was no harassment on the part of the Chinese fishermen,” Lacierda maintained.

But as the Chinese poachers remain free, 20 Vietnamese fishermen were arrested for illegal fishing yesterday in Balabac, Palawan after a long night chase by a Philippine Navy gunboat.
Maj. Niel Estrella, spokesman and intelligence chief of the Western Command (Wescom) said that the Vietnamese vessel was found to be carrying 20 live sea turtles.

“The apprehended 20 Vietnamese fishermen along with their fishing vessel are now being escorted by a Naval gunboat PG-383 to Puerto Princesa City for the filing of appropriate charges,” he said.

UN help sought

For administration lawmakers, it might take an intervention from the UN to end the standoff.

Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone said the government must exhaust all peaceful and diplomatic means to resolve the standoff “without giving up our legal claim over Scarborough Shoal.”

“If necessary, the UN should step in because what is being violated by the Chinese fishermen is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” Evardone said.
“The UN should assert that its international laws should be observed and respected by its member-nations,” he said.

Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption party-list Rep. Sherwin Tugna said running to the UN and invoking the UNCLOS “is an available remedy that we have under international law.”

“We can still continue with the amicable diplomatic negotiations with China. That way, we will not heighten the belligerency between our country and China on this issue,” Tugna said. “But our government must have a deadline on how long it will resort to bilateral/multi-lateral negotiations with China and other countries that are also interested in this territory.”
He said that if the impasse drags on, the Philippines “can file a case in the UN against China for violation of international laws.”

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares said the government may also invoke the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

“From all indications, the Chinese are hell-bent in intruding on our territory to get to our resources especially natural gas, fisheries and others, we must ensure that we will continue to defend what is ours,” Colmenares said.

“We must also be wary of US entry into the picture as it will only worsen the situation and even escalate it. Furthermore it would just put us in a situation of one invader substituting for another,” he said.

The Kabataan party-list group blamed the previous administration for the situation in Scarborough Shoal.

Terry Ridon, spokesman for the party-list group, said the Arroyo administration declared Scarborough Shoal as a “regime of islands” under the UNCLOS, rather than part of the country’s territorial waters.

“By declaring the Scarborough Shoal as a mere regime of islands, the country had effectively lost full sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan Group of Islands, thus subjecting our claim over these islands to mere diplomatic resolution,” Ridon said.
“We are thus constrained to merely explore and exploit the resources found therein, instead of being able to exercise full political, economic and military sovereignty over these waters,” he said.

He said the Arroyo administration fully knew that it had passed the Baselines Law from a “position of weakness and fear of China, instead of valiantly staking our historical claim over these islands.”

ASEAN card

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, for his part, said the Philippines can count on its allies, particularly from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in dealing with China on the Scarborough issue.

Lacson, chairman of the Senate committee on national defense and security, said that China was apparently posturing to assert its claim on what clearly does not belong to it.
“There’ll be a lot of posturing and this is one of those, ordering the Philippine authorities to leave the contested islands,” Lacson said. “We can’t go up against them but we always have the ASEAN. We will always lean on the stronger countries.

“What is happening in the West Philippine Sea is not just an interest of the Republic of the Philippines, it is an international issue,” Lacson said. “We can just hope that this does not escalate into something more serious that would have dire consequences.”

Lacson maintained that the issue stemmed merely from an enforcement of local laws. He said the Chinese fishermen were found poaching in Philippine territorial waters and thus should be held accountable, he said.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan said the Philippines did the right thing when it filed a diplomatic protest against China. He also stressed that diplomacy is still the best approach to the impasse.

“I agree with actions taken by DFA’s (Secretary) Del Rosario. We mount a diplomatic protest, communicate the incident to the government of China, and hope there will be a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to this,” Honasan said.

He also called on officials to talk with the country’s allies such as the United States, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN and let them know “that there is that situation in Scarborough Shoal... how they intend to help us, this is not only a regional issue but a global issue.” 

“Let’s ask them if there is substance to all these agreements, security economic that we have signed with them, otherwise, what’s the use,” he added.

In Butuan City, a new group called Filipinos for Real Change (FRC) said militant groups like Bayan and Gabriela should explain their silence on the issue.

“Militant groups are always in the forefront in every protest rally in front of the US embassy in Manila protesting against what they claimed US imperialism, What about China’s continuing bullying against us when it is very clear Scarborough Shoal is within Philippine territory? Where is their nationalist spirit? Why the continued silence over this direct intervention of China to our sovereignty?” FRC said in its statement. 

Jaime Laude | The Philippine Star | April 13, 2012 | Article Link

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