MANILA has sought clarification from Beijing amid reports China was planning to build an environmental monitoring station on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a Malacañang official said on Saturday.
“We are seeking information from Chinese authorities to clarify the accuracy of the report,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a text message.
Hainan Daily newspaper, quoting Sansha Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie, has reported that China would begin preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Panatag Shoal.
This comes as the Philippines seeks a diplomatic solution with China to resolve a dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Manila is not insisting on its rights over the contested waters despite an international arbitration tribunal ruling favoring the Philippines.
China seized Panatag Shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy. It then denied Filipino fishermen access to the disputed area, forcing the previous Aquino administration to take legal action against Beijing.
The United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s claims to the West Philippine Sea in July 2016, ruling that the Philippines has sovereign rights over Panatag Shoal and other areas within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. China refused to recognize the ruling.
Tensions eased when President Rodrigo Duterte visited China the same year, telling his counterparts that he was not yet ready to insist on the tribunal decision.
Recently, Chinese survey ships were monitored at the resource-rich Benham Rise, an area that is part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf east of Luzon, for about three months.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the Philippines did not own Benham Rise but the Philippine government maintains that it “belongs to the Filipino people and the Philippines.”
On Friday, President Duterte met with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang in Davao City to unveil a new six-year development cooperation plan, but the two did not discuss the maritime dispute.
Also on Saturday, Malacañang denied that Chinese ships were in Benham Rise to monitor the alleged presence of US submarines in the country’s continental shelf.
Abella said the Philippine government does not allow Chinese vessels in Benham Rise to do such monitoring.
“We have not heard of such information,” Abella stressed as he reiterated Duterte’s previous statement that he does not want the Philippines to be caught in the conflict between the US and China.
“Be that as it may, the President will not allow that as he said in numerous occasions that he does not want the Philippines to be caught in the middle of a conflict between the United States and China,” the Palace official said.
Duterte had downplayed the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise, China sought permission to send its ships to the area.
The Palace official said the Philippines is duty-bound to protect its sovereign rights over the Benham Rise and can oversee and regulate the ships that pass through the area.
“Other countries can exercise innocent passage and territorial navigation. But they are disallowed to stay and establish any structure in the area… The Philippines has the responsibility to oversee and regulate the sailing ships of other countries that pass with the waters around Benham Rise,” Abella said.