China likely to increase Panatag Shoal presence - expert

Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - April 11, 2013 - 5:52pm

MANILA, Philippines - Chinese vessels are not likely to leave the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and may even increase their patrolling activities in the area, a security expert said on Thursday.

Russell Smith, Asia Pacific director of critical information provider IHS, said China would maintain its presence in the area not for economic gain but to assert its sovereignty.

“I can see the Chinese increasing their patrol activity. I know last week, the Chinese marine surveillance vessels were operating,” Smith told reporters in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig.

“I don’t think it is the riches (as) some portray it to be. It is a sovereignty issue,” he added.

Smith is the Asia Pacific specialist for IHS, publisher of Jane’s Defence Weekly, which provides news and analysis on security developments worldwide.

He made the statement a year after Chinese vessels started intruding into the Panatag Shoal, located 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales.

China started to occupy the area on April 10, 2012, when its surveillance vessels barred the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had poached endangered marine species from the shoal.

China made the aggressive action even if the shoal is located within the Philippines’ 200-nautical miles exclusive economic zone.

Chinese ships have managed to maintain its presence in the shoal, scaring off Filipino fishermen who rely on the area’s natural resources for their livelihood.

“Patrol activity (by Chinese vessels) will be increasing in that region and through the West Philippine Sea in the months ahead and the reason is it built infrastructure in the island in the Paracel group,” Smith said.

He said China put up the infrastructure and logistics in its occupied island to support more patrol activities.

China has announced that Xisha (Paracel), Zhongsha (Macclesfield bank), and Nansha (Spratlys) islands have been elevated to “prefecture status” under Sansha city from their previous county-level status.

Chinese officials said the establishment of Sansha, which means “city of three sands,” would enhance China’s administrative management on the three islands.

The Philippines has protested the creation of the city, saying this would infringe into its sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea.

Smith said the Scarborough issue is not about oil and gas but sovereignty over the area.

“I was talking to our energy analyst before I came to this trip and they were telling me there’s no oil and gas in Scarborough Shoal. According to our analyst, it’s not fighting over oil and gas. It is a sovereignty issue,” Smith said.

“It is not economically viable to extract, too deep, we don’t think there is anything significant out there anymore,” he added.

Smith said the Philippines can continue raising the issue before the United Nations.

“There is a lot of common understanding about the situation in this particular region. I would like to see ASEAN to come together as a group and be able talk to China,” he added. - with Bjorn Beltran and Catalina Madarang

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