THE Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the government will file a protest if China makes good on its reported plan to build structures at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a resource-rich fishing ground well within the territory of the Philippines.
“We are now clarifying if indeed there is such plan. If true then we will file a protest,” DFA spokesman Charles Jose said in an interview.
Jose said the Philippine military and intelligence agencies should keep an eye on the West Philippine Sea. However, the government favors sending Coast Guard ships instead of those of the Navy to patrol the shoal to avoid confrontation with Chinese vessels.
“The position of the government is to send Coast Guard ships because China has coast guard ships also in the area,” Jose said.
He noted that the Coast Guard is a civilian agency, which sends a message that the Philippines is avoiding war or military confrontation in the area.
The DFA spoke out after Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged the government to take a hardline position on Panatag Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc.
Carpio, in a statement last week, said the shoal is within the territory of the Philippines as affirmed in the July 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The controversy surfaced anew after President Rodrigo Duterte said he could not do anything to prevent China from constructing structures on the shoal.
‘Close watch’ over shoal
In a news conference in Thailand where Duterte and Cabinet members are on a visit, acting DFA chief Enrique Manalo said the government would keep a “close watch” over Panatag Shoal.
Manalo said there had been no change in the shoal and that Filipino fishermen could still “go freely” to the area.
“In the meantime, we are maintaining a close watch on the Scarborough Shoal so we would be aware on the developments within the area,” Manalo told reporters.
He said the DFA would be aware of any developments as it receives reports from the Coast Guard and security agencies.
China is reportedly preparing to build an environment monitoring station on Panatag Shoal off the coast of Zambales province.
Manalo echoed the statement of President Duterte to maintain “diplomatic and peaceful settlement of disputes” in the South China Sea.
“We’ll be having a chance to talk to China face-to-face on the issue of the South China Sea. We agreed to establish a bilateral mechanism with China to discuss issues on South China Sea. So I think the President is very clear: We want to have a peaceful, diplomatic settlement of dispute but we will not fail to protect our national interests, if necessary,” he said.
According to Manalo, China will be hosting a dialogue with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in May over the crafting of a framework for a legally binding code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
“Maybe, at that time, we will have made significant progress on the framework [for the code of conduct in the South China Sea],” he said.
“Now, the purpose of the code is to see how we can manage our disputes carefully, not to raise tensions, not to escalate tensions. And that’s the whole idea of the code. So all countries, even though we may have some disputes, we have to behave and deal with each other in a way that doesn’t lead to conflict but rather promotes cooperation,” Manalo said.
All Asean member countries and China signed on November 4, 2002 the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea or DOC, which aims to exercise self-restraint and prevent non-militarization within the contested waters.
Four Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam – are claiming parts of the disputed area, while China and Taiwan are claiming most of its features.
Manalo admitted that there would be challenges in crafting the final version of the COC but had high hopes for a successful deal.
“Of course, there are challenges in the sense that you know, it’s Asean and China. So that’s 11 countries and all have views. But you know, I think, through the years, many ideas have already developed regarding what kind of elements can go into the code. So every country has a fairly good idea,” Manalo said.
“That’s why I think, even though there will be challenges in agreeing what should be the main elements, I think there’s still a good ground as long as countries are willing, have political will to arrive at certain agreements on the framework,” he added.
Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, meanwhile, said that filing a protest in connection to the maritime dispute over the South China is part of the government’s strategy.
“These are all parts of the dynamics and the strategy so please understand and give a latitude at the DFA… because although we do have to report to the people, what country will be able to achieve its objectives if we announce our strategy while we’re implementing our strategy?” he said.
‘PH should not be bullied’
A senator on Wednesday insisted that the Philippine government should not allow itself to be bullied by China and instead invoke the ruling of the international arbitral tribunal on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and file a formal protest.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said it was the duty of the government to invoke the ruling of the international tribunal and take action before international legal institutions to contest the plan of China to build a radar installation on Panatag Shoal.
Gatchalian was referring to the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declaring that Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea had violated the Philippines sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone.
“The favorable decision in the Philippines vs. China case is a potent tool we can use to enforce our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. It is our duty to take action before international legal institutions to contest any further acts of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea,” the senator pointed out.
Gatchalian stressed that the Scarborough Shoal, which sits less than 200 kilometers off the coast of Zambales, is a militarily significant position that must be protected at all costs.
“Chinese military activity so close to the Philippine mainland is an alarming national security risk that must be immediately addressed,” the senator added.
WITH CATHERINE S. VALENTE AND JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA