3 Chinese ships still in Panatag
- Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - July 9, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Chinese fishermen appeared to have left Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, although at least three Chinese government ships have remained as of Friday.

However, some officials monitoring the situation are not discounting the possibility that the Chinese fishing boats would return.

Latest surveillance reports showed that two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and one Fisheries and Law Enforcement Command ship were still in the shoal. The three Chinese ships were reportedly located two nautical miles east of Panatag.

“No new structures have been observed,” the report said. However, no more Chinese fishing vessels are inside the shoal or its vicinity.

Sources said an aerial surveillance was made last Friday, but the agency was not identified.

A security official who requested anonymity said the Chinese fishing vessels and dinghies might return.

“It is possible that the higher authorities of the two countries are already talking,” the official told The STAR. “But it is also possible that Chinese fishing vessels would return.”

China did not honor an agreement with the Philippines to pull out vessels from the lagoon in Panatag Shoal.

Last June 25, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that the Philippines and China had reached a verbal agreement to pull out from the lagoon but not the wider vicinity of the shoal.

The following day, the Philippine Navy reported that 23 Chinese boats and ships were inside the lagoon.

Prior to last Friday’s aerial surveillance, at least 25 Chinese fishing vessels and boats were spotted in Panatag Shoal.

Last July, a Navy aircraft saw two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels, a Fisheries and Law Enforcement Command vessel, six fishing boats and 16 dinghies.

The Philippines used to have two vessels facing off with Chinese ships but these have left upon the orders of President Aquino.

Despite the continued presence of Chinese ships in the shoal, Malacañang has yet to decide whether to send back Philippine ships to the shoal.

Filipino fishermen will be allowed to return to the area starting July 15.

Panatag Shoal is 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales.

It is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by international laws.

A standoff ensued on April 10 after Chinese maritime surveillance ships stopped the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered species.

Chinese bombshell

China has dropped a bombshell with the decision to begin “regular, combat-ready patrols” in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), according to American think tank The Heritage Foundation.

Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Senior Col. Geng Yansheng announced last June 28 that the People’s Liberation Army had begun regular, combat-ready patrols in what he claims as waters under Chinese jurisdiction.

Dean Cheng, The Heritage Foundation’s research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs, said the implication is clear that the Chinese Navy is now regularly patrolling the waters around the Spratlys and possibly elsewhere in the South China Sea.

“With the decision to begin regular naval patrols, however – and especially ‘combat-ready (zhanbei)’ ones – the potential for escalation is far greater,” he said.

 “This is an alarming escalation of China’s efforts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea region. Until now, the various confrontations and incidents in the area – whether with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal; the Vietnamese over oil exploration efforts; or the United States in the separate incidents involving the USNS Impeccable, USNS Victorious, and the USS John S. McCain III – have had only civilian participants.”

Cheng said it is bewildering that an array of Chinese bureaucracies each assumes responsibility for only a portion of China’s maritime interests, including fisheries, agriculture, and the State Oceanic Administration.

“Even more disturbing is that this measure seems to be part of a larger Chinese effort to exercise full sovereignty over the area,” he said.

A statement from the Ministry of Civil Affairs said the State Council or China’s Cabinet approved last June 21 the establishment of the prefectural-level City of Sansha (City of Three Sands) to administer the three island groups of Xisha (Paracels), Zhongsha (Macclesfield bank) islands and Nansha (Spratlys) and their surrounding waters and the government seat will be stationed on Yongxing Island, part of the Xisha Islands.

“The Chinese are evidently establishing the legal and political framework to solidify their claims of sovereignty,” he said.

“And with the announcement of patrols, they appear to be taking their preparations to support those claims to the next logical level: that of defending them.”

On June 23, the China National Offshore Oil Corp. invited bids for oil exploration in blocs well within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam’s coast.

On Wednesday, the DFA summoned China’s ambassador and presented her a diplomatic note in which the Philippines protested Beijng’s establishment of a new “prefectural-level” City of Sansha to administer three disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and future development of the islands.

Ambassador Ma Keqing was handed the 10th diplomatic note since the beginning of the standoff in April in Panatag Shoal between the Philippines and China.

The DFA said the extent of Sansha City’s jurisdiction violates Philippine territorial sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group (Spratlys) and Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal) and infringes on Philippine sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf of the West Philippine Sea.

The establishment of Sansha City contradicts the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the DFA added.

A China Daily report said the Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman told a news conference that the military is studying the setting up of a military body in Sansha.

Zhang Haiwen, China Institute for Marine Affairs deputy director, said some countries claiming sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea might target Sansha.

The report said the officials believed that the military’s presence is needed to safeguard Chinese interests including fishing rights, scientific research and the development of maritime resources.

After Sansha City is established, the Chinese government will launch a series of development plans with protection from the military, Zhang said.

Geng said China will “resolutely oppose any military provocation” following the reported Vietnamese overflights in the skies above Sansha recently.

“Chinese military has already set up a normal, combat-ready patrol system in seas under our control to protect national sovereignty and our security and development interests,” he said.

China’s armed forces have the resolution and will to safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty, sea rights and interests, Geng said.– With Pia Lee-Brago

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