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Military monitors Chinese activities at Panatag Shoal

MANILA, Philippines - Philippine authorities are not discounting the possibility that the continued Chinese presence at the Panatag Shoal could be a prelude to putting up markers or structures to boost China’s claim over the area, sources in the military said Thursday.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because a gag order has been in effect on defense and military officials, who are barred from providing media with updates on the standoff that began April 10 in the shoal standoff.

“We will wake up one day and see markers or small structures already planted inside or outside the lagoon to boost their claim of the maritime area. That’s why we’re closely monitoring their activities. We’ve two ships there but they might not detect all the time the activities of the Chinese especially during night,” a ranking military official said.

As of Wednesday morning, there were seven Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and eight fishing vessels in the shoal. “The seven vessels are merchant ships, the FLEC and CMS that we’re earlier reporting. This plus the fishing vessels, China has a total of 15 vessels at the shoal at present,” another official said. China has sent up to 90 vessels to the shoal in the past weeks.

For its part, the Philippines has deployed only two vessels, one from the Coast Guard and one from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

The standoff started on April 10 when the BRP Gregorio del Pilar was blocked by two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels to prevent it from arresting Chinese fishermen on board 8 fishing vessels who illegally harvested giant clams, corals and different kinds of endangered marine resources in the area.

Since then, China sent more vessels on rotation basis to boost its claim over the shoal which is well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. China, however, calls the area Huangyan Island, which is more than 800 nautical miles from its nearest shore.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is expected to give more details about his bilateral meeting with China Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Cambodia.

Earlier, Gazmin said China is open to dialogue to defuse the tension at the Panatag Shoal.

Panatag now, Recto Bank next?

Meanwhile, a Navy official said China is using Panatag as a test case for its bigger claims in the whole stretch of South China Sea. “If they will be successful at Panatag, then they have all the reasons to claim Recto (Reed) Bank which is their main target.

The reef’s underground has lots of oil,” he said. The reef is part of the disputed Spratly Islands, which also includes the 7 islets and two reefs found inside the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) municipality of Palawan located in the West Philippine Sea.

Besides the Philippines and China, other claimant nations are Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.

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| May 31, 2012 | Article Link

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