Coast Guard off to Panatag

CRAZY QUILT - Giovanni Nilles, Evelyn Macairan - The Philippine Star
Coast Guard off to Panatag
To be deployed to Panatag, PCG spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said, were the ships BRP Tubbataha (in photo), BRP Davao del Norte and three monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) vessels.
PCG / Released, File

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has resumed sending patrol vessels to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, but only to “test the waters” and not to confront the Chinese who have stopped harassing Filipino fishermen but remained in control of the area, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade said yesterday.

He said the Coast Guard would merely be conducting  a “roving inspection,” and that the possibility of a confrontation “is farthest from our mind right now.” The Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over the PCG.

The PCG suspended deployment in the area at the height of Typhoon Karen and later Super Typhoon Lawin and in deference to President Duterte’s state visit to Beijing last month.

Days after Duterte’s return last Oct. 21 from Beijing, the Chinese stopped harassing Filipino fishermen at the shoal, but have maintained a presence in the area.

PCG spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said two ships would be in the vicinity of the shoal at any given time.

To be deployed to Panatag, Balilo said, were the ships BRP Tubbataha, BRP Davao del Norte and three monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) vessels. The BRP Pampanga is on standby for deployment.

Panatag is only 124 nautical miles from Zambales and is well within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“There is instruction to deploy vessels to Bajo de Masinloc any time today (Thursday). They will be coming from Manila and Subic,” Balilo said, referring to Panatag by its local name.

“Their mission is for the Philippine Coast Guard to sustain the government’s presence in the area and to assess the condition of our fishermen,” he added.

“When the President was in China, Coast Guard commandant Rear Admiral William Melad gave instructions not to send our ships to avoid any untoward incident that might have an effect on the diplomatic efforts of the President,” he pointed out.

Malacañang earlier stressed the Filipino fishermen were able to return to Panatag after four years of Chinese blockade due to “friendly agreement” with China.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said China’s relaxing its hold on Panatag was mainly a result of Duterte’s visit to Beijing, specifically his bilateral talks with President Xi Jinping. “While fishermen are no longer harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard ships staying at the shoal, there was no formal agreement signed yet by the two governments,” Abella said.

No formal deal

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. also made it clear there was no formal agreement with China on the latter’s lifting of its blockade of Panatag Shoal.

“There is no agreement that has been arrived at with China insofar as these ships leaving or our fishermen having access to Scarborough,” Yasay said.

“But I would imagine as part of our quiet diplomacy trying to build mutual trust and confidence with two countries, these have been made possible,” he pointed out.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines would continue to monitor developments, said its spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla.

“The AFP welcomes the recent developments that have been monitored to have been happening in the area and we hope this continues in the interest of all those who are getting their livelihood out of the area,” Padilla said.

“We in the AFP will just continue to monitor and hopefully, the current status out there is for the good of local fishermen,” Padilla said.

Chinese Foreign Affairs ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also said the successful visit of Duterte to China has put the relations between the Philippines and China back on track.

“We have seen all-round improvement of China-Philippines relations following President Duterte’s visit to China,” she said.

But she stressed that China has been merely exercising normal jurisdiction over the shoal and “the situation there is and will remain unchanged.”

The Chinese seized the shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy, which had tried to arrest Chinese poachers.

GMA News cited a near encounter in September when a PCG patrol confronted a Chinese vessel that had strayed into the Philippines’ EEZ.

But the Chinese replied they were “currently conducting a patrol in our exclusive economic area under the jurisdiction of People’s Republic of China.”

The July 9 ruling by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration declaring Panatag as a common fishing ground did not stop China from asserting control over the shoal.

In the same ruling, the international tribunal also invalidated China’s massive “historical” claim in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, in the fishing community of Masinloc in Zambales, people are confident of a merrier Christmas this year with the lifting of the Chinese blockade of Panatag.

Antonio Calixtro, a fish dealer based in Barangay Matalbis, said the development has rekindled hope among fishermen and that their enthusiasm is palpable.

Calixtro supplies fishermen’s needs like fuel for motorized banca, ice for preserving fish and food for a week for fishing expeditions.

“We have problems for daily needs since the Chinese occupied Scarborough in 2012 and denied our fishermen access to the shoal, but now that has changed and we hope to see it continue to happen so we will have a merry Christmas,” Calixtro told The STAR.

Roberto Aldea, a storeowner in Barangay Luanan in Palauig, said the residents suffered terribly when the Chinese barred their fishermen from Panatag.

“But now that has changed again and hope our Christmas will be merry and happy again,” Aldea said. He lends grocery items to fishermen’s families.

Malacañang has also confirmed fishermen from Zambales, Bataan and even Pangasinan are now allowed inside the lagoon. Aerial image released recently by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative indicated the inner lagoon was still closed to Filipino fishermen, with a Chinese coast guard vessel guarding the lagoon’s mouth.

Doubts raised

Meanwhile, Pangasinan Rep. Jesus Celeste yesterday expressed doubts Filipino fishermen were able to go to Panatag without hassle, saying no fishing boat could have reached the place due to inclement weather.

In an interview over dwIZ, Celeste said fishermen usually avoid the shoal in the months of November and December due to big waves. “To my mind, I cannot believe there are fishermen who went to that area,” Celeste, himself a fisherman, said. “November, December, there is no fishing because of big waves,” he added. Celeste’s turf includes coastal towns like Infanta, Dasol and Bolinao. He said fishermen go to Panatag between February and July.

“Once amihan starts, they do not go there anymore. They will just lose because of their fuel expenses but few fish catch,” he added.

But Charlito Maniago, barangay captain of Cato, Infanta, Pangasinan said some of his constituents returned from Panatag late October with bountiful catch.

“We would see this time because they are set to leave anew and fish in that area again, if indeed they are already free again to fish in Scarborough Shoal,” Maniago said. Travel from Cato to Panatag takes about 18 hours.

Maniago also said they had expected President Duterte to discuss developments at Panatag during his brief visit to Sual last Nov. 2. The President, however, only presided over the ceremonial sendoff for 17 Vietnamese fishermen arrested in September for fishing illegally in the waters of Ilocos Sur. – Jaime Laude, Bebot Sison Jr., Pia Lee Brago, Eva Visperas

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