MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is preparing to formally protest China’s plan to install a radar station at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in violation of a ruling by a United Nations-backed international tribunal declaring the shoal a common fishing ground outside any country’s jurisdiction.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the administration’s planned course of action was in accordance with Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s suggestion that a strong formal protest against Beijing be filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague.
“I think so, there will be (a protest to be filed). Medyo malakas-lakas ang ifa-file (A stronger one will be filed),” Aguirre said when asked about the issue in a chance interview.
Aguirre’s statement came on the heels of President Duterte’s voicing helplessness against China’s continued buildup of its forces in waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
But Aguirre assured the public that Duterte is committed to protect and defend the nation’s sovereignty despite the latter’s pronouncement that he could not stop China from building a structure at the shoal. “Definitely, he will not let go of (Panatag shoal),” Aguirre stressed.
“As a matter of fact, we are strengthening the relationship with the US,” Aguirre pointed out, indicating a potential shift from Duterte’s earlier declaration of separation from the US and a pivot to China.
The filing of a protest was among the five-point strategy suggested by Carpio for dealing with China’s reported plan to set up facilities at Panatag shoal.
The SC justice has also suggested sending Philippine Navy vessels to the shoal.
“If the Chinese attack Philippine Navy vessels, then invoke the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty which covers any armed attack on Philippine Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea,” he pointed out.
Carpio also stressed the government may ask the US to declare the shoal part of Philippine territory and accept the superpower’s offer to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea.
The SC magistrate also advised Duterte to “avoid any act, statement or declaration that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea.”
Carpio stressed that Panatag is part of the national territory under Republic Act No. 9522 (Philippine Baselines Law) and that President Duterte has the constitutional duty to defend it from China’s incursion.
He earlier warned that the installation of a radar system at the Panatag shoal will complete China’s air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.
In 2012, the Chinese seized the Panatag Shoal after a tense standoff with Philippine Navy personnel who had tried to arrest Chinese poachers in the area. The poachers were allowed to return to China with their illegal harvest of baby sharks, endangered corals and giant clams. The Chinese have never left the shoal since then.
A ruling in July last year by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague upheld the Philippines’ entitlements in the West Philippine Sea but declared Panatag a common fishing ground. The shoal is only about 230 kilometers from the nearest coast in Luzon and close to 2,700 kilometers from China’s nearest coast in Hainan.
At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella made it clear Duterte has not surrendered the country’s sovereignty over Panatag Shoal or any other area within the country’s EEZ either seized or being coveted by China.
“He has said time and again that he will defend and protect the interests of the Filipino people and will take necessary action at a time most fitting and advantageous to us,” Abella said.
“Furthermore, PRRD has repeatedly asserted that RP is not giving up its claims and our entitlements over the area,” Abella said, referring to Duterte by his presidential initials.
He noted even China has not issued an official stand on reports it was preparing to build a radar station at Panatag Shoal. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), he said, is verifying such reports.
“The DFA is in the process of verifying alleged announcements of proposals to build structures in WPS (West Philippine Sea), since these statements do not reflect the official position of China,” he said.
Duterte earlier declared that the Philippines – with its weak armed forces – cannot stop Beijing from building a radar station at Panatag Shoal.
This prompted Carpio to remind Duterte of his constitutional duty to defend the country from Chinese incursion.
Panatag is part of the national territory, Carpio pointed out, as stipulated under the Philippine Baselines Law.
In his speech in Myanmar Monday, Duterte again ruled out invoking the UN arbitration ruling when dealing with Beijing. But he also vowed to raise the matter if and when China starts extracting mineral resources like oil or uranium in disputed areas.
“Now, if China starts getting oil or uranium or whatever that’s inside the bowels of the sea, I will do something and tell them, ‘We own it. You claim it by historical right, by judgment I won and it’s mine,’” he said.
Duterte also stressed he would not send forces to confront the Chinese in disputed areas to avoid bloodshed.
“First hour, they are finished already. We are not in a position to declare war,” he said.
“But I said to China that someday during my term as President, I will have to confront you about the arbitral ruling and that would be maybe, during the time when you begin to extract minerals and the riches of what is inside the bowels of the earth,” Duterte added.
Meanwhile, the lawmaker who filed an impeachment complaint against Duterte has asked the President not to portray the country as defenseless against China’s maritime incursion.
“His statement that we cannot do anything is not true. In fact, we have a lot of non-military and non-confrontational options. He just doesn’t want to do them,” Rep. Gary Alejano of party-list group Magdalo said.
During the campaign, then candidate Duterte said if the Chinese intruded into Panatag, he would rush there in a jet ski to confront the intruders.
Alejano has described as “treason” the President’s admission that he had allowed a Chinese research ship to survey Benham Rise, which is part of the country’s territory.
He said Duterte’s statement on China’s building plan at Panatag Shoal “is a defeatist narrative fitting squarely to what China wants us to feel.”
The lawmaker advised the President to listen to Carpio and revisit various recommendations proposed in the past by national leaders and security officials to address Chinese intrusions into Philippine waters.
“He can consult his national security team and other leaders,” he added.
Alejano lamented the Duterte administration is speaking with discordant voices in dealing with China.
He noted that while Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has denounced the presence of China’s research ship in Benham Rise, the President admitted he had allowed it without informing his defense chief.
Alejano urged the President to send the Coast Guard or even the Navy to patrol the Panatag Shoal area.
“The shoal is located 230 kilometers from Luzon, while it is 2,659 kilometers away from the Chinese mainland. Logistically, the replenishing of supplies such as food and fuel will be a challenge for China, not so for our troops since it is closer to our shores,” he said.
“We can strategically deploy and train our fishermen to utilize the natural resources in the area. We could provide them with study vessels and advanced communication system so that we could aid or defend them should they be threatened by Chinese ships,” he said.
He said Duterte should learn a lesson or two from Vietnam in protecting the country’s interest.
Alejano recalled that in one confrontation with China near the disputed Paracels, Vietnam lost several troops.
The former Marine captain said the country could also invoke its security alliance with the United States, Japan and Australia.
In case of a shooting war, he said he would be “more than willing to fight for our country.”
The military, for its part, said it is ready to deploy a navy ship – recently acquired from the US – to conduct oceanographic survey of Benham Rise.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Office chief, said they are just awaiting a written order from Lorenzana or from the President for the deployment of BRP Gregorio Velasquez (AGR-702) to Benham Rise.
“We have one survey vessel and the Philippine Navy has the capability to do maritime research, but so far we don’t have the instructions,” Arevalo said. The other survey vessel acquired from the US was BRP Andres Bonifacio. – With Christina Mendez, Jaime Laude
Philippine President Duterte Seeking Allies For At Sea Code of Conduct (Contains links to several previos articles on the South China Sea)
On July 12, 2016 a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague said China’s nine-dash line claim (shown above) was invalid and not recognized in international law.