VIENTIANE – Chinese ships spotted around Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off the coast of Zambales last week have remained in the area based on an aerial monitoring over the shoal, according to an official.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said it is possible that China is pushing through with its plan to conduct reclamation in the shoal, which a UN-backed arbitral court has declared a common fishing area.
Lorenzana reported the presence of the Chinese ships on Panatag Shoal to President Duterte last week.
“Actually, there are 10 ships, four Coast Guard, four barges and two other manned vessels,” Lorenzana told reporters on Monday night here.
“What is suspicious is they have drums, things that appear to be containers,” he added.
One of the vessels, which looked like a trawler, is anchored at the entrance of the shoal.
Lorenzana quoted Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua as saying that the vessels are transferring sand from one area to another.
“We suspect that they’re testing the ground if their technology can reclaim underwater,” the defense chief said.
“That area is ours. Once they seize an island, we can no longer recover it,” he added. “If they start reclamation and build, it can pose a risk to our security because it’s just 30 miles away from Masinloc town in Zambales.”
Located just 125 nautical miles from Masinloc, Panatag Shoal is a traditional fishing ground for Filipinos.
In 2012, Chinese surveillance ships prevented a Philippine Navy vessel from arresting Chinese poachers who had harvested endangered species in the area.
China has since maintained its presence in the shoal, effectively barring Filipino fishermen from entering what used to be their traditional fishing route.
The foreign affairs department is planning to ask China to explain the presence of its ships in the shoal, Lorenzana said.
“We will continue to conduct surveillance operations,” he said.
President Duterte had earlier said he is ready to hold bilateral talks with China to settle the West Philippine Sea dispute.
He also asked the Chinese government to allow Filipino fishermen to fish on Panatag Shoal.
Duterte has asked former president Fidel Ramos to hold backchannel talks with China’s representatives before the two countries can start formal negotiations. – With Alexis Romero
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