MANILA, Philippines - China appears to be building concrete structures in the disputed Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, during a budget hearing at the House of Representatives yesterday, said aerial and sea patrols on Aug. 31 showed three Chinese coast guard vessels within the disputed shoal, which is about 220 kilometers west of Zambales.
“We do conduct naval patrols both in the water and on the air. And as of Aug. 31, 2013, we have noticed the presence of three coast guard ships in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc, and we have also sighted concrete blocks inside the shoal, which is a prelude to construction,” Gazmin said.
He showed lawmakers pictures taken by a military aircraft over the area that showed the shoal, dotted with concrete blocks.
He said the Department of National Defense submitted its report on the matter to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Malacañang on Monday.
“Are these then moves to create a Chinese fortification over Philippine territory? Is this the meaning of these concrete blocks?” Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello asked Gazmin.
“If we follow history, that is the direction,” Gazmin replied, referring to the dock, shelters, and communications structures China put up in Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) that was discovered in 1995.
Gazmin said China has “become overly-aggressive” in staking their claim over the area.
If the construction would not be contained or halted, the country may soon find that China has already put up a garrison in Panatag as it did in Panganiban Reef, he said.
Gazmin said the move to put up permanent structures was “definitely” a violation of the code of conduct for the claimants to the West Philippine Sea and other nations in Southeast Asia.
“It often starts with blocks, and then eventually pile drivers, and after that you will see a foundation, when you get back again - if you did not survey it – there will be a garrison,” Gazmin told reporters after the hearing.
He said the government should deploy naval vessels to Panatag on a long-term basis to ensure that the construction would not progress any further.
“We don’t have a capability for that at the moment but we can file a letter of protest and this will add to the case filed for arbitration (before the United Nations),” he said.
DFA to address violations
The DFA, for its part, said the government would properly address the reported fresh violations by China.
“We are awaiting further confirmation. Jointly with DND, we are committed to look at ways to appropriately address this issue,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping territorial claims over parts of the South China Sea.
The Philippines’ arbitral proceedings against China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea are underway.
‘AFP could only watch’
A senior military official, who asked not to be named, said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) could only watch as China starts building up structures in Panatag Shoal.
“Giving primacy to our diplomatic approach in resolving peacefully our territorial row in West Philippine Sea, all we could do is to monitor and watch over their activities and report these to our political leaders for their corresponding actions,” said the official.
“But even with limited capabilities, if so ordered by the political leadership, we in the military are duty bound to defend the country’s sovereignty and safeguard its territorial integrity,” the official added.
AFP chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista in last week’s Manila Overseas Press Club forum said that with the backing of 100 million Filipinos, the military can fight any invasion.
Meanwhile, Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian criticized China for setting “impossible” conditions for President Aquino’s attendance in an international trade fair in Nanning.
The STAR reported last Friday that China had asked the Philippines to first withdraw its arbitral case on the west Philippine Sea dispute.
“China’s unprecedented conditional invitation is imprudent and meant to embarrass the President. The expo and the issue on the West Philippine Sea are two different matters. As a tradition and common practice, heads of state attend the event,” he said.
DFA officials said Aquino decided to cancel the trip after China demanded that the Philippines withdraw a complaint seeking international arbitration over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
Gatchalian said the Chinese government should have seen Aquino’s presence in the trade fair “as a friendly gesture in promoting and deepening strategic trade partnerships between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.”
“The event was meant for the Philippines being the ‘country of honor.’ The expo’s thrust is about ASEAN, and has nothing to do with the dispute in the West Philippine Sea. China could have seen this as an effort by President Aquino to break the ice, and bring back the healthy and stable Sino-Philippine relations,” he said.
He said China’s demand that the Philippines withdraw its complaint “will not help in easing the tension between the two countries as China continually ignores efforts of the Philippine government to peacefully reach out.”
This year’s expo was intended for economic and trade exchanges to advance business opportunities for cooperation and industry development between China and ASEAN.
Aquino was supposed to lead the Philippine delegation to invite Chinese investors to invest in the Philippines.
Hernandez said there were other conditions set for Aquino’s visit, but declined to reveal them.
He said the conditions were “absolutely inimical to our national interest.” The Chinese side asked they not be made public, he said.
Aquino decided to cancel his trip, which Malacañang had earlier announced, because of the conditions.
“The President stood firm in the defense of the country’s national interest,” Hernandez said.
Isabela officials led by Gov. Faustino Dy III, however, pushed through with their scheduled trip to China for the 10th ASEAN-China Expo.
Composed of local officials and representatives of the business sector, the more than 100-member delegation from Isabela left for China Monday morning. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Jess Diaz, Jaime Laude Charlier Lagasca