China renewed its aggressive stance on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) nearly two years following the Panatag (Scarborough) standoff, with Beijing reasserting its presence in the contested waters.
Philippine Armed Forces chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista said Chinese vessels used water cannons to drive away Filipino fishermen from the Panatag Shoal on January 27.
The shoal has been a subject of a bitter territorial row in the strategically important South China Sea. Bautista did not say if anyone was hurt in the attack.
“The Chinese coast guard tried to drive away Filipino fishing vessels to the extent of using water cannons,” Bautista said during a forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).
Chinese forces have not left the shoal since a Philippine warship and Chinese vessels engaged in a standoff over the arrest of Chinese fishermen in the area in April 2012.
The government has maintained that the shoal, which is also called Bajo de Masinloc because it sits just below the Masinloc municipality in Zambales, is an integral part of Philippine territory. The area is within the country’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Philippine Continental Shelf. The shoal is about 650 kilometers from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.
Bautista said China continues to maintain an armed coast guard and other vessels at the Panatag shoal, a rich fishing ground that also holds vast oil and mineral potentials. The harassment of Filipino fishermen has been reported to the military but no action has been taken in the absence of Armed Forces troops in the area.
Chinese embassy spokesmen could not be contacted for comment.
China has also maintained its presence on Ayungin (Second Thomas) shoal, located 124 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan.
A military official who asked not to be identified said two Chinese surveillance ships remain in the shoal.
He said Philippine troops conduct regular patrols in the two shoals but they see to it that they avoid direct confrontation with the Chinese forces to avoid escalating tensions in the area.
“They are maintaining their presence. For our part, we just remain observant because of our diplomatic tack and the ongoing arbitration proceedings at the United Nations—we are compliant on that part,” the official said.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims to parts of that sea and the rivalries have been a source of tension among the countries involved for decades.
The West Philippine Sea is one of the world’s most important waterways as it is home to vital shipping lanes and is believed to sit atop lucrative deposits of natural resources.
Last year, Manila asked a United Nations arbitration tribunal to rule on the validity of China’s claim to most of the area, but Beijing has yet to participate in the process.
“We continue to give primacy to its [the dispute’s]peaceful resolution principally through international arbitration,” Bautista said.
“All our actions are in support of that. We remain hopeful that the issue can be resolved peacefully and results in peace and stability in the region.”
He added that “our resolve to perform our mandate as protectors of the people and the state and of our national territory” has not been weakened.
“We will continue to perform that mandate with whatever we’ve got,” he said, adding that the country is in the first phase of modernizing its poorly equipped armed forces.