MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang is leaving it up to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to answer China’s claim that it never committed to pull out its vessels from the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
“First off, the commitment has always been to deescalate tensions; to always be sensitive about what is being said. Second, we will defer to the DFA to respond to that particular issue,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.
She said the DFA would have to reply to the statements of its counterpart – the Chinese foreign ministry – after conflicting reports on the pullout of Chinese ships from the area.
“From our viewpoint, the Philippine government has always acted within our commitment to pursue the resolution of the issue through diplomatic means and we have always – all the actions have always been towards that goal,” Valte said.
The DFA said yesterday the pullout of ships, including fishing vessels, from the lagoon of Panatag Shoal is an “agreement” between the Philippines and China.
“The pullout of ships including fishing vessels from inside the lagoon has been agreed upon by both the Philippines and China,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.
Hernandez added the ships outside the lagoon would be subject to further consultations with China.
The DFA statement on the agreement between the two countries contradicted the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s denial of the Philippine claim that Beijing would withdraw ships from Panatag Shoal that the Chinese refer to as Huangyan Island.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the “Chinese side will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters.”
Hong urged the Philippines to refrain from giving further statements and behaviors that may further strain relations.
“We wonder where the so-called commitment the Philippine side mentioned on ‘China’s withdrawal of vessels’ came from. We hope the Philippine side can restrain their words and behaviors, and do more things conducive to the development of the bilateral relations,” he said.
In a radio interview, Hernandez said the Philippines and China agreed to pull out their ships from the lagoon last June 5.
Hernandez said Hong could have “misunderstood” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s statement on China’s commitment to pull out its vessels.
“Maybe they misunderstood the statements made by Secretary (Del Rosario) in referring to the vessels. He was referring to the ship that was inside the lagoon. Any ship outside the lagoon is subject to further discussion,” Hernandez said over radio dzBB.
Hernandez said there was an agreement on both sides not to put any ship inside the lagoon.
“The pullout of Chinese fishing vessels was part of that agreement,” he added.
China on Monday said Chinese fishing boats have pulled out of Panatag Shoal due to “inclement” weather.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying, “As I have learned, due to the rough seas, the Chinese fishing boats are on their way back for shelter.”
For the safety of the fishermen and their boats, Hong said the China Rescue and Salvage sent Nanhaijiu-115 vessel to provide necessary assistance at the request of China Fishery Administration and fishermen.
China said it would continue to establish its presence in Panatag Shoal, also referred to as Bajo de Masinloc.
“Chinese side will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters,” Hong said.
It was gathered yesterday that six Chinese ships are still in Panatag.
The vessels, which all appeared to be guarding the shoal despite inclement weather, are composed of three Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) and three Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ships.
“There are still six Chinese ships in the area,” said a security official, adding the surrounding seas around Panatag were very rough yesterday.
“Only their fishing vessels have left as their CMS and FLEC are still out there,” the official said.
Asked if there was a need to reinstate the country’s physical presence in Panatag Shoal, Valte said it would be up to the authorities.
She said it would also be up to the DFA to clarify with the Chinese officials their statements that they would pull out fishing boats and fishermen but their bigger vessels would remain.
“I don’t want to preempt our actions at the moment. We will be able to advise you as soon as the re-evaluation is made or if we have something concrete that we can share with you. As of the moment, we have not been advised by the DFA when the re-evaluation is going to take place – what specific time or date,” Valte said.
Valte also could not say whether Chinese authorities were bluffing about their statements on the pullout of vessels.
“Well, I will not be in any position to judge whether it is a bluff or not. So we will not comment,” she said.
On Sunday, the China Rescue and Salvage of the Ministry of Transport announced it would send a vessel to Huangyan to assist in bringing to safety Chinese fishermen caught in the typhoon.
The announcement was posted on the website of the Chinese embassy in Manila.
It said “due to the inclement weather and strong tide in the Huangyan Island waters, in order to help Chinese fishermen and fishing boats pull out safely for shelter, Nanhaijiu-115 vessel has set out to the area to provide necessary assistance.”
The DFA said on Saturday that President Aquino had ordered the pullout of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ships on Friday night as typhoon “Butchoy” approached the country.
“President Aquino ordered both of our ships (PCG and BFAR) to return to port due to increasing bad weather. When weather improves, a reevaluation will be made,” Del Rosario had announced.
Asked if the government would check reports that the Chinese vessels were carrying soldiers and not fishermen, Valte said she could not say.
“I cannot give assurances… that is an operational matter that you will have to get over if that is possible, isn’t it? Because how do you check? Do you ask them for identification? That is something that is not clear,” she said.
Valte said the reevaluation on whether Philippine vessels would be sent back would be done “as soon as the weather improves.” – With Pia Lee-Brago, Jaime Laude