Navy did not give up Panatag to China, former chief clarifies

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

The Philippine Navy did not give up Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to China in the 2012 standoff. Its warship was ordered out two days after the impasse began that April to resume an original mission in northern Luzon waters. And that was only on arrival of Philippine Coast Guard patrols to continue confronting the proliferating Chinese gunboats and poachers.

This was clarified by then-Navy Flag Officer in Command Adm. Alexander Pama. “We did not retreat, we did not withdraw; we were, in military parlance, relieved in place,” Pama told Sapol-dwIZ Saturday. “Never did the Navy back out of any challenge.”

“Relief in place” is “an operation in which, by direction of higher authority, all or part of a unit is replaced in an area by the incoming unit. The responsibilities of the replaced elements for the mission and the assigned zone of operations are transferred to the incoming unit. The incoming unit continues the operation as ordered.” (thefreedictionary.com)

The clarification came in wake of repeated Duterte administration claims that its predecessor’s withdrawal of Navy ships let China occupy Panatag. Criticized for his appeasement policy on China, Rody Duterte has alleged that then-foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio ordered a back off. Neither the foreign office nor the High Tribunal is part of the Armed Forces command chain.

“It was not the Navy that withdrew in June 2012,” Pama said, reacting to Duterte’s late night telecast the other Monday with former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. “The President was misinformed of the timeline. If we cannot get the data correct, our credibility is shot.”

To begin with, only one Navy vessel, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was involved. It was en route on emergency to northeastern Luzon on info that a North Korean missile fired at Guam might hit Philippine mainland or boats in Benham Rise. On report that the missile splashed into sea April 8, BRP del Pilar was then diverted to Panatag, 123 miles off Zambales, Pama recounted. Navy reconnaissance planes had sighted eight to ten illegal Chinese fishing trawlers there.

BRP del Pilar entered the horseshoe-shaped shoal in the wee hours of April 10, Pama said. At daybreak an inspection team on rubber boat boarded one of the Chinese trawlers. Discovered were hundreds of live and dead sharks, giant sea turtles, giant clams and fan corals. The species were internationally listed as endangered, thus prohibited to catch or harvest. “We have photos,” Pama recalled. “It took four to six men to carry even just half of each decades-old clam.”

Midmorning three gunboats of the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) and one from Fisheries Law Enforcement Control (FLEC) barged into the scene. Pama identified two of them: Zhongguo Haijian 75 and Zhongguo Haijian 84. “Agad nakipag-patintero sila sa boarding party,” he said, suspecting a set-up. Not only were the Chinese gunboats protecting the illegal fishers, they also were just lingering nearby. Panatag, a former Navy bombing range, is 750 miles from China, well outside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

The 1998 Fisheries Code (RA 8550, Section 124) deputizes the Navy, Coast Guard and PNP-Maritime Command as enforcers. In past interdictions they brought poachers to San Fernando, La Union, for prosecution and detention.

But Beijing turned the tables on Manila, propagandizing that the latter was bullying Chinese fishers by sending a warship. Thus, the decision from Malacañang to pull out BRP del Pilar. The order came after a meeting in Malacañang attended by Enrile and other Congress leaders, a military source said. It was relayed to the Armed Forces North Luzon Command and to the Naval Forces-North which had operational jurisdiction over Panatag.

By April 12 Coast Guard patrols BRP Pampanga and BRP Edsa arrived from different ports. A craft of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources joined in, then-BFAR director Atty. Asis Perez said last month also on Sapol-dwIZ. BRP del Pilar moored in Subic Bay, Zambales.

In the following weeks 15 additional CMS and FLEC gunboats escorted nearly 200 more Chinese poaching vessels to the traditional Filipino fishing ground. Each 80 meters long, the Chinese gunboats dwarfed the 45-meter Philippine patrol craft.

In the third week of June the approach of Super Typhoon Butchoy prompted talks to end the standoff at sea. The US brokered a simultaneous pullout from Panatag, del Rosario has recounted several times. The Philippine craft departed as agreed, but China deceitfully reneged. The Chinese gunboats even chained off the mouth of the shoal to prevent Filipinos from returning. Beijing could only have planned it from the start, Pama concluded.

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“Gotcha: An Exposé on the Philippine Government” is available as e-book and paperback. Get a free copy of “Chapter 1: Beijing’s Bullying and Duplicity”. Simply subscribe to my newsletter at https://jariusbondoc.com/#subscribe. Book orders also accepted there.

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