No monitoring station on Panatag – Beijing
Jose Rodel Clapano, Alexis Romero, Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) - March 23, 2017 - 12:00am

BEIJING – China is not building an environmental monitoring station on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, its foreign ministry said yesterday, apparently denying remarks made by a local official last week.

Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said reports about the facility on Scarborough Shoal had been checked and were found to be false.

Hua’s statement came almost simultaneously with Manila’s announcement that it was seeking clarification from Beijing on reports on the planned building of monitoring facilities on the shoal.

“That does not exist at all,” Hua told reporters at a regularly scheduled news briefing.

The official Hainan Daily newspaper had quoted Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, as saying the monitoring station is included in the Chinese government’s projects lined up for this year.

Sansha is the name given by China to the municipal government that administers several island groups, including disputed areas like the Spratly Islands.

Such a move would likely renew concerns among Beijing’s neighbors over its assertive territorial claims in the sea.

The uninhabited shoal came under Chinese control in 2012 after a standoff with Philippine Navy personnel who had tried to arrest Chinese poachers in the area. 

China’s construction and land reclamation work in the South China Sea have drawn strong criticism from the US and other countries, who accuse Beijing of further militarizing the region and altering geography to bolster its claims.

China says the seven man-made islands in the disputed Spratly group, which it has equipped with airstrips and military installations, are mainly for civilian purposes and to boost safety for fishing and maritime trade.

Prior to the announcement, South China Sea tensions had eased somewhat after Beijing erupted in fury last year following an international arbitration tribunal ruling on a case filed by the Philippines. The verdict invalidated China’s sweeping territorial claims and determined that China had violated the rights of Filipinos to fish at Panatag Shoal.

China has since allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the shoal following President Duterte’s calls for closer ties between the countries, but it does not recognize the tribunal’s ruling as valid.

In her remarks, Hua reiterated Beijing’s desire for good relations with the Philippines, a US treaty partner that has been drawing closer to China since Duterte’s inauguration last year.

China will “cherish the good momentum of the bilateral relationship and will be committed to pushing forward the sound, steady and rapid growth of the relationship,” Hua said.

Panatag has no proper land mass and any structure on it would likely have to be built on stilts.

Known in Chinese as Huangyan Island, it lies about 200 kilometers west of Luzon and about 600 kilometers southeast of China.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of part or the whole of the South China Sea, which straddles one of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and gas.

Clarification

Earlier in Bangkok during Duterte’s state visit, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said they were seeking clarification from China on its reported plan to construct a radar station at the shoal.

“We have already approached China to seek clarification on this reported plan. And we have to wait for China’s reply,” Manalo said. 

“In the meantime, we are maintaining a close watch on Panatag Shoal. So we would be aware of any development in the area. So I think at this stage, that’s all I want to say on your particular question,” he told reporters.

Manalo said he could not say yet whether the Philippines would file a protest against China’s reported plan.

While Malacañang was still verifying the report, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said in an interview on Tuesday the Philippines was preparing to file a strong protest.

He said the step was in accordance with Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s advice that a strong formal protest against Beijing be filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague.

But Manalo said the government should wait further for a clearer picture before considering Carpio’s proposal.

“Justice Carpio has been very involved in this issue. I think he’s very knowledgeable and he has proposed certain options. But those options would only swing in under certain conditions,” he added.

“But as of now, that is why it’s really very difficult to comment on them and all we can really do is await China’s clarification on the reported plan,” he added.

In September, China insisted the situation in Panatag Shoal had not changed and that it was keeping a large number of coast guard vessels in the area for law enforcement patrols.

It denied dredging or building activities were being conducted at the shoal.

Earlier, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana quoted Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua as saying that “the vessels are transferring sand from one area to another.”

He said it was possible that China is pushing through with its plan to conduct reclamation in the shoal.

President Duterte had said no one could stop China from carrying out its plan, noting that even the United States, with its advanced military, was not able to do so. 

“So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China?” Duterte said in a press briefing last Sunday.

“I can but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation. And we cannot assert even a single sentence of any provision that we signed.”

Sticking to diplomacy

Manalo said the Philippines remains committed to “a peaceful settlement of disputes in the region” but remains committed to defend the country’s national interests.

“In the meantime, we are seeking diplomatic and peaceful settlement of disputes. That’s one of the reasons we are pushing very hard for this Code of Conduct,” the acting foreign affairs chief said.

“But in a way also, we’ll be having a chance to talk with China face to face on issues of the South China Sea. We have agreed to establish bilateral mechanism with China to discuss issues on the South China Sea,” he added.

“So I think the President has been very clear. We want to have a peaceful, diplomatic settlement of disputes but we will not fail to protect our national interest if necessary,” he pointed out.

In 2002, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to settle maritime disputes peacefully. It has been 14 years since the declaration was signed yet the parties have not crafted a binding code of conduct.

During their bilateral meeting Tuesday, Duterte and Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha expressed hopes that a framework for the code of conduct would be completed within the year.

“The importance of the framework is that if it is completed, it will identify the key elements of a Code of Conduct and that is possible because once we have a framework, it would then be possible to actually begin a series of discussions on a Code of Conduct on the basis of a framework,” Manalo said.

He said even China has mentioned the importance of a framework for a code of conduct for South China Sea claimants.

“I’m pretty sure that the guiding elements there would be how to promote cooperation and how to de-escalate tension even in the light of perhaps existing disputes. And maybe, once that’s all clear, once we have a code, we may actually now be in a position to discuss how we can settle the disputes,” Manalo said.

“I think China also has to be cooperative when we negotiate the framework. We’ll have to take into account the concerns of all the other countries in the framework,” he added.

‘Benham ours alone’

While Manila may give China the benefit of the doubt on the Panatag Shoal issue, it should not compromise on Benham Rise, a vast undersea area the UN has awarded to the Philippines, a former environment secretary-turned-lawmaker said yesterday.

Benham is located in the Philippine Sea, some 250 kilometers east of the northern coastline of Dinapigue, Isabela.

Being east of Luzon, China could not possibly claim Benham. China would have to cross over Luzon, and claim the whole of Luzon, before it could claim Benham, Rep. Lito Atienza of party-list group Buhay said.

Atienza said Benham is of great economic value to future generations of Filipinos, based on the massive deposits of metal-bearing nodules found around the extinct volcano ridge.

“The sea floor around Benham is covered with metal-rich chunks of manganese nodules that also contain nickel, copper, cobalt and other minerals,” he said.

He said the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (Namria) had explored Benham and found exceptionally high concentrations of manganese nodules on the seabed.

“We had Benham surveyed by Namria between 2007 and 2008, in connection with the Philippine government’s submission with respect to the limits of the Philippine continental shelf,” he added.

Atienza pointed out that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Philippines was required to tender for approval the particulars of the outer limits of its continental shelf.

“We had a May 2009 deadline to present the outer perimeters before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, along with supporting scientific and technical data,” he said.

“And when the Philippine government under then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo finally submitted the limits of our continental shelf, we made it a point to include Benham as within our limits,” he said.

He said Arroyo was aware of the decision to include Benham, “because we elevated the matter to her, and she approved it.”

Unlike the disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea, no other state was claiming Benham at the time, so the UN approved the Philippine government’s submission in 2012, he stressed.

Atienza said the UN ruling gives the Philippines exclusive control over resources in Benham Rise. “Thus, only Filipinos may fish in Benham,” he said.

Former congressman and national security adviser Roilo Golez  also said the country should firmly invoke its right over Benham Rise, as he laughed off China’s claim its vessels were merely passing through the area and not conducting survey.

“It’s not an innocent passage. The surveillance ship of China passed by, but it also returned. We have to stand on this. The government should seriously pursue a protest against China. We might lose it if we will not protest it,” Golez said at yesterday’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Cafe Adriatico.

“This (Benham Rise) is our territory and we have to fight for it,” he said.

A source in the military, meanwhile, said China has regularly deployed ships in the Pacific since last year, but stayed outside the Philippines’ EEZ.   – AP

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