China out to grab Zambales shoal
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc () - April 16, 2012 - 12:00am

Stay alert. It wasn’t mere fish poaching that sparked the near clash between armed Chinese and Philippine ships in Scarborough Shoal last week. Two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels popped up on scene to shield the poaching lancha just as a Philippine Navy cutter was accosting them. This showed they were just in the vicinity of the shoal, trespassing Philippine waters like their fish-rustling compatriots. A third Chinese fisheries enforcement craft arrived to reinforce the two. It was not bent on enforcing international bans on harvesting live shark, giant clams, and corals found on the poaching boats. Then, while diplomatic talks were ongoing to diffuse the tension, one of the Chinese ships harassed and a patrol plane buzzed a Filipino research craft with French scientists onboard.

China’s aim is apparent. Its patrols were acting as advance scouts for its People’s Liberation Army-Navy. Under pretext of innocent fishing, China is out to grab Scarborough Shoal, just like it did to Mischief Reef in 1995.

Manila cannot ignore the disquieting pattern. Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef are not part of the Spratly Islands disputed by the two countries. Both lie within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, far beyond China’s, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. For decades Mischief had been a rest stop of Filipino fishing craft from Malabon-Navotas and Zamboanga. It is 130 miles off Palawan, and more than 900 miles from China’s closest island-province of Hainan. Allowed in the spirit of amity, Chinese fishers occasionally sought shelter there. During the monsoons of 1994, when Philippine naval patrols were off, China put up several stilt huts. Claiming these were innocent storm shelters for fishermen of both sides, China ignored Manila’s protests. The following year China erected concrete structures, followed by communications towers, satellite dishes, helipads, and cannons. From then on, Philippine military and civilian craft were forbidden from approaching. Soon after grabbing Mischief, China dropped buoys around Sabina Shoal, closer to Palawan, (70 miles). The Philippines confiscated these.

China then trained its eyes on Scarborough, 120 miles west of Luzon, but nearly 800 miles from Hong Kong, China’s closest point. Recorded in the Spanish times as Masinloc Baja, after the jurisdictional Zambales town, Scarborough too is a fishermen’s rest stop. Secured by warships, Chinese sailors attempted to build bunkhouses and plant markers around the 15,000-hectare lagoon. The Philippines beached a gunboat on the sandbar to signal readiness for protracted siege. The squatters from across the South China Sea retreated.

On routine patrol last Holy Week the Philippine Navy flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar spotted eight Hainan-type launches inside the lagoon. Boarding from motorized rubber boats, Filipino Seals videoed the poached contraband. Then came three Chinese interloping ships from its bureaus of maritime surveillance and fisheries enforcement. With three other “civilian” agencies — coast guard, Customs, and maritime safety — the vessels of the “five dragons stirring up the seas” are well armed. Its coast guard alone has 86 patrol craft, all equipped with medium-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The grey Philippine naval vessel may have looked inapt confronting white Chinese civil government craft, but the latter were as ready for sea battle. Beijing cried that the fishing craft had merely sought shelter from a storm in the shoal. Smartly Manila withdrew the del Pilar from the standoff to keep a “grey to grey, white to white” stance. Dispatched to the area was the Philippine Coast Guard’s BRP Pampanga to treat the poaching as a police matter. Still, in light of China’s past and continuing aggressions, Manila should keep the Navy on standby against any overt Chinese effort to occupy Scarborough. In recent months, China has harassed seismic research and fishing craft in the oil-rich Reed Bank 80 miles off Palawan. It planted markers in nearby Boxall Reef, Jackson Atoll, and again Sabina Shoal.

China claims ownership of Scarborough, Mischief, Sabina, Reed, Boxall, and Jackson by virtue of having Chinese names in unverified “ancient maps.” But there are also Filipino names respectively for the six areas explored by the British Admiralty in the 1700s-1800s. These are Panatag Shoal, Panganiban Reef, Escoda Shoal, Recto Bank, Rajah Soliman Reef, and Quirino Atoll. Seismological maps of the University of London show these — and the Spratlys — to be within the Philippine continental shelf.

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After a decade-long delay, the NEDA board has approved the P61.5-billion extension of the Light Rail Transit from Manila to Cavite. The government ballyhoos the 11.7-km rail line from Baclaran to Bacoor to be a reliable, earth-friendly rapid transit for the urban populace. The private-public partnership project will be this year’s biggest by the Department of Transportation and Communications.

Plans are for the DOTC to hold a straight public bidding for the construction of the maintenance depots, stations, guide ways, tracks, signal systems, and control center. A Canadian firm had filed an unsolicited proposal in 2000 under the Build-Operate-Transfer Law, but anomalies under the Arroyo admin marred the required Swiss challenge. The government had to buy out the original proponent for an astounding $10 million.

Old habits die hard, though. Sources say that NEDA and DOTC insiders are lobbying for a G-to-G deal, in which the foreign government will choose the contractor. This was what happened in the China-funded NBN-ZTE and Northrail scams. Also being pushed is a negotiated joint venture, a baseless NEDA variation of the B-O-T Law during the waning years of the Arroyo tenure. The PPP approach may be a bit more expensive for the government, due to feasibility study costs. But it will bring in the best domestic builders with ties to reutable foreign conglomerates.

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News items can be hazy at times about why certain persons are being indicted for the NBN-ZTE scam and election fraud. Or why military corruption cases clog the courts, the pork barrel stumps Congress, and the NAIA-3 terminal is being litigated abroad. Just off the press, the book Exposés: Investigative Journalism for Clean Government provides a backdrop to these and other issues. This selected compilation of my Gotcha columns is available at most National Bookstore and Powerbooks branches.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ, (882-AM).


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