Palace to press UN arbitration in sea row

Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines will proceed with its submission of “memorial” or written argument to press its claim over Panatag Shoal before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) amid China’s virtual occupation of the territory as well as its acts of aggression against Filipino fishermen, Malacañang said yesterday.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also denied knowledge of a supposed offer from China to withdraw its ships from the shoal – also called Bajo de Masinloc – in exchange for Manila’s dropping of its arbitration case against China.

Manila hopes to submit the memorial or pleading to ITLOS before the March 30 deadline.

Beijing has openly rejected the Philippine protest over an incident wherein Chinese coast guards reportedly drove away Filipino fishermen from Panatag Shoal using a water cannon last Jan. 27.

Through international arbitration, the Philippines is contesting China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea.

The arbitration case was also seen as the reason why Beijing asked President Aquino not to push through with his trip to Nanning, China last year even if the Philippines was the country of honor at the China-ASEAN Expo.

“I think we have already made a solid case before the international community. Our case is based on the rule of law,” Valte said.

She said the Philippines’ claims are based on international law and that the country’s approach to staking those claims has the support of the international community.

She said Manila’s filing of a diplomatic protest over the Jan. 27 incident is part of diplomatic and peaceful means to settle the dispute.

Valte pointed out there was nothing new with Beijing’s response rejecting the protest since it had always claimed the whole of the South China Sea.

“The position is that, remember that the case that we filed in the arbitral tribunal involves the concept of the nine-dash line. So essentially, the memorial is already being prepared. While I can tell you generally that it will contain the position of government when it comes to this, I cannot delve into specifics,” Valte said.

“We’ll have to wait for that particular moment when the details can be made public. But now the memorial is being prepared. We have a deadline, we are ready to meet that deadline; and everything to bolster the government’s case, of course, will be contained in the memorial,” she added.

Valte said various departments, primarily the Department of Foreign Affairs, verified their information on the Jan. 27 incident to make sure there would be justification for the filing of a protest.

“And just a little bit of insight on how these things are done, there is great amount of information gathering whenever we received reports like that particular incident. And it does go into the responsibilities of the DFA to make sure that the information that they have been receiving is correct, and based on the assessment of the available information, an evaluation is made on what next steps to take. So when it comes to that, the DFA made certain that that particular incident that was being discussed is confirmed and verified,” Valte said, explaining the belated disclosure of the information.

While firing of water cannons at other vessels is normally done as a form of warning to avoid collision, Chinese ships appear to be using it to drive away perceived intruders.

“That is a question that is properly addressed to the Chinese coast guard that engaged in firing the water cannons,” Valte said.

She declined to say whether the incident could bolster the country’s claims against China.

“I will not pretend to be an expert when it comes to international law matters,” she said.

She also emphasized the Philippines would avoid any confrontation in the shoal.

“The guidance has always been not to respond to provocative acts. The chief of staff of the Armed Forces has said this much – that we have selected the path of peace, the path of arbitration, and we will stick to that as we have done in the past few years,” Valte said. “It indeed raises tensions. If my memory serves me right, this is the first time that an incident of this manner has transpired.”

‘Calibrated response’

While avoiding open confrontation with Chinese vessels, the Philippine Coast Guard said it is ready to deploy patrol ships to Panatag Shoal as part of Manila’s “calibrated response” should Chinese ships continue to harass Filipino fishermen.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told News5 that the filing of a diplomatic protest over the Jan. 27 incident was just a first step to bringing the issue to the international community.

“We first file a diplomatic protest on the water cannon incident and to pursue the resolution of the issue through the arbitral tribunal,” Gazmin said. “In case the CCG (Chinese coast guard) vessel will still persist with water cannons, our response should be calibrated – where we will have the Philippine Coast Guard.”

By deploying PCG vessels to the shoal, Gazmin said Manila wants to maintain a “white on white response and not to heighten the tension.”

The PCG is considered the equivalent of the Chinese Maritime Surveillance group. Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said they are still waiting for orders from Malacañang to escort Filipino fishermen to Bajo de Masinloc.

“Our vessels are ready,” Balilo said.

The Chinese embassy in Manila is insisting that China has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and their adjacent waters.” The embassy, in a statement, stressed that China’s sovereignty includes Huangyan Islands, as Bejing calls Panatag.

Right move

For Sen. Francis Escudero, the government is on the right track with its official filing of a protest over the Chinese coast guard’s use of a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen from Panatag Shoal, which is Philippine territory.

“That is within their rights in the same manner that we are also fighting for our sovereignty over the disputed islands,” Escudero said, referring to China’s outright rejection of the Philippine protest.

“The government did the right thing on two points: First, it did not take the incident lightly and secondly, the issue was brought to the proper forum, through diplomatic channels,” Escudero said in Filipino.

“The government should pressure China to follow and conform to international practices,” he added.

He said it’s good enough that the two sides are talking despite their contrasting positions on the manner of resolving the dispute. Manila wants it resolved through international arbitration while China insists on bilateral negotiation.

Territorial disputes really take years to resolve, Escudero said, adding it is important that the Philippine government continue asserting its sovereignty over the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea.

UN help

Administration lawmakers, for their part, urged President Aquino yesterday to turn to allies for help in thwarting China’s expansionist moves in the West Philippine Sea.

Ako Bicol party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe said the country urgently needs the help of its friends as Filipino fishermen continue to be at risk to more “Chinese terror, intimidation and bullying.”

He said forming an alliance with other countries claiming the South China Sea would force Beijing to sit down and settle the dispute amicably.

“I am afraid that this bullying will always be the course of action of China. To avert this, we have to enlist the cooperation of other nations, which have territorial disputes with China to establish a united front to compel China to sit down and address these problems through diplomatic means and not through the use of force or bullying tactics,” Batocabe said.

“The unwarranted intrusion of China’s coast guard into ours is very deplorable and worse, firing at an unarmed Filipino fishing vessel,” he said.

House Deputy Majority Leader and Citizens Battle Against Corruption party-list Rep. Sherwin Tugna said the United Nations should intervene to avert a possible shooting war in the disputed waters.

“This is a continuing aggression and bullying of China against our country. The UN should decide soon on the territorial dispute case that our country has filed. UN’s inaction could escalate violence,” Tugna said.

Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello slammed the Chinese government for “playing good cop, bad cop” with the Philippine government.

Bello was commenting on reports that Beijing had offered to pull out its forces from Panatag Shoal following a recent water cannon attack on Filipino fishermen there if the government withdraws its claims to the West Philippine Sea before ITLOS.

Bello said the offer indicated the “very weak position of the Chinese.”

He also urged the DFA and the Aquino administration to stand firm on the case and demand that the Chinese government be made to account for its harassment of Filipino fishermen.

“China’s recent actions betray their weakness. Their claim over the entire West Philippine Sea is a matter of historical fiction, and they resort to a carrot and stick approach to project their imagined strength,” he said.

He said the reported offer only validates the observation of political analysts that China was caught flat-footed in the international legal battlefield when the Philippines elevated the territorial dispute to the ITLOS.

“According to political analysts, Beijing is lost at sea on the international legal battlefront. Their recent attempt to trade their withdrawal from Panatag shoal for the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ITLOS confirms that the Chinese government has nothing substantial to back their historical claims,” he said.

“They try to bully the Philippines into submission with their coast guard rocking the boats in Masinloc. This good cop-bad cop act confirms that we clearly have the upper hand in the territorial disputes,” Bello said. With Christina Mendez, DJ Sta. Ana, Paolo Romero

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