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China: Ships have left disputed Spratlys atoll

Pia Lee-Brago, Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – Chinese vessels have left Quirino (Jackson) Atoll near Palawan after completing their mission to remove a grounded Filipino fishing vessel in the area, Beijing’s foreign ministry said yesterday as it reiterated China’s indisputable sovereignty over the atoll.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China’s Ministry of Transport had sent the vessels that Filipino fishermen said were preventing them from dropping their nets in the atoll.

“To guarantee safety of navigation and of work conditions, China urged fishing vessels near the site to leave,” Hong said.

Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. of Pagasa Island in the Spratlys confirmed accounts from fishermen that China had deployed several ships to Quirino Atoll. The STAR earlier reported that up to five gray and white Chinese vessels were stationed in the atoll at any one time.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday it was verifying reports of China’s taking over Quirino Atoll, a traditional Filipino fishing ground.

“We are in the process of verifying this report with concerned agencies,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said.

Quirino Atoll is 33 nautical miles from Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the Spratlys, where China has carried out extensive land reclamation work for possible military use.

“This is very alarming, Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest,” Bito-onon said.

“I feel something different. The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there. It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation,” he said.

Fishermen told the mayor one Filipino boat had run aground in the area and was still there but was not being harassed by the Chinese vessels.

Checking reports

The military also said it was trying to verify the presence of Chinese ships near Quirino Atoll, where a Chinese warship allegedly fired warning shots at Filipino fishermen in 2011.

“We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area,” spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla told Reuters. “There are also ships around Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent.”

Ayungin Shoal is where the Philippine Navy has been occupying and reinforcing a rusting ship that it ran aground in 1999 to bolster its claims to the disputed reef.

A military source from Palawan said a surveillance plane had seen four to five ships in the vicinity of Quirino Atoll last week. The source could not say if the ships were passing through or permanently stationed there because the area is close to Panganiban Reef, where China is building an artificial island.

“There are no indications China will build structures or develop it into an island,” the source, who was not authorized to speak to the media about the South China Sea, said, referring to Quirino Atoll.

Along with China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.

In Tagbilaran, Bohol, President Aquino slammed China anew for claiming almost the entire South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.

Without directly referring to the Quirino Atoll issue, Aquino said it was distressing to hear the Chinese always insisting on their “indisputable” right over disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea.

While the DFA was still verifying the issue, the President said China had been sending signals that “all of these are ours, do not get in.”

“We have been talking to them for a long time now, the problem is they always say these are all ours,” the President said in a meeting with local leaders at the Bohol Cultural Center.

Still, rule of law

On Tuesday, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. reiterated the Philippine position on the primacy of the rule of law in resolving maritime disputes. He said rule of law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, would be the basis for any decision by an arbitral court on Manila’s case against Beijing.

Also in Bohol, Liberal Party presidential candidate Manuel Roxas II said the Philippines should remain sober and just continue tapping peaceful and legal means to address the issue.

“It is important that we remain sober because if we use violence, we do not know how it will end. It is important that we bring this before the United Nations,” Roxas said in an interview.

“This is in line with the dispute settlement resolution treaty signed by China, the Philippines and other countries which states that when there is disagreement among countries, this should be brought before the international tribunal,” he added.

Senate President Franklin Drilon also reiterated the Philippines’ commitment to peaceful settlement of the maritime spat with China.

“The government will never engage in any provocative step that would escalate the tension between the Philippines and China, and pose danger to the country’s peace, stability and security,” Drilon said.

“The rule of law should always prevail and our actions will always be in accordance with international law,” he added. 

For opposition vice presidential candidate Sen. Gregorio Honasan II, now is the time to test the country’s bilateral ties and security arrangement with the United States and with other countries, especially those belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN.

“Will they help us in fighting against China who keeps on bullying us?” he added. He said the Quirino Atoll incident has underpinned China’s determination to further assert its claims in the West Philippine Sea.

“As of now, we feel that we are helpless and we can’t do anything but to watch them claiming the whole South China Sea as fast as they can,” said the senator.

“I want to know if the treaties that we arranged in the US and other countries continue to serve our national and mutual interests. Do they help? If they don’t, then let’s just forget about them,” he said.

Honasan is the running mate of Vice President Jejomar Binay who earlier raised his openness to talking with Beijing for joint exploration in disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea.

“If our bilateral agreements with other countries do not serve our own interests, then let’s continue to talk to China in a multilateral arrangement,” he said. “Let’s make a joint exploration with them.”

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares yesterday denounced China for occupying another piece of disputed territory that is a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos.

“It seems China’s strategy now is to take as much territory as it can in the West Philippine Sea before the ruling of The Hague Arbitral Court comes out, so other claimants would be hard put to evict the rising superpower from their claimed areas,” he said.

Goodwill visit

Meanwhile, two minesweepers of the Japanese navy docked in Manila yesterday.

Navy Capt. Lued Lincuna, director of the Naval Public Affairs Office, said vessels of the Minesweepers Division 51 of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSFD) anchored at South Harbor’s Pier 15 for a three-day goodwill visit.

The vessels – Urga and Takashima – were under the overall command of Capt. Toshiro Takaiwa.

“Part of the visit was the shipboard tour on board the two Japanese ships participated by Filipino sailors,” Lincuna said.

He said the visit is expected to further enhance the strong relations between the Philippine Navy and the JMSDF.

Japan and the Philippines early this week signed an agreement paving the way for Tokyo’s transfer of defense equipment and technology to Manila.

Both have been strengthening defense relations in response to security concerns stirred by China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

“It is another manifestation of a sustained promotion of regional peace and stability and enhancement of maritime cooperation between the neighboring navies,” Lincuna said. – Aurea Calica, Marvin Sy, Alexis Romero, Janvic Mateo, Jess Diaz

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