THE Philippines and Taiwan are locked in a new diplomatic row, this time over the deployment of Philippine naval ships to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the Spratly Group of Islands.
In a statement, Taiwan government said its foreign ministry “expresses its serious concern and firm opposition over the Philippines’ dispatch of naval vessels” to Ayunging.
Interestingly, the Philippine government had protested last week China’s incursion in the same shoal.
Earlier this month, Beijing sent one of its biggest fishing fleet to the Spratlys for a 40-day trip amid escalating tensions in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) over China’s perceived aggression in disputed waters.
Marine Col. Edgard Arevalo, Navy spokesman on West Philippine Sea issues, said on Sunday that based on their latest monitoring, there were still two Chinese surveillance ships near Ayungin Shoal. However, the 10 smaller vessels earlier spotted were no longer in the area.
“We monitored no fishing boats but there are two surveillance ships. The first ship was monitored May 24 at 10 a.m. then yesterday, May 25 at 9 a.m., we monitored another one,” Arevalo said.
The Chinese ships, along with a military frigate and more than 10 fishing boats, were spotted in Ayungin more than a week ago and have remained there since then despite the filing of a diplomatic protest by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The presence of Chinese ships in the shoal was reported at the height of the controversy surrounding the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippine Coast Guard personnel on May 9 off Batanes.
China allegedly took advantage of the situation, sending its ships to Ayungin while Manila and Taipei were arguing over the Batanes incident.
The death of the fisherman triggered a diplomatic spat between Taipei and Manila, which claimed that the Taiwanese vessel had intruded into its territorial waters.
Taiwan has rejected claims that the shooting took place in Philippine waters. President Ma Ying-jeou has described the incident as “cold-blooded murder.”
In protesting the deployment of Philippine ships to the contested shoal, Taiwan said it “denies all unlawful claims to sovereignty over, or occupation of, these areas by other countries.”
“The Republic of China (Taiwan) reasserts that it enjoys all rights over these four island groups and their surrounding waters,” the statement further said, referring to the Spratly Islands, Xisha (Paracel) Islands, Zhongsha Islands (Macclesfield Bank), and Dongsha (Pratas) Islands.
Arevalo disclosed that the Navy’s BRP Sierrra Madre is the only vessel monitoring the Chinese ships at the Ayungin Shoal. However, the military conducts daily aerial monitoring over the area through the Western Mindanao Command.
Arevalo said the government wants a diplomatic solution to the Chinese intrusion but stressed that “we are not letting our guard down and we’ll continue to monitor them and their movement.”
Taipei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government “has held to the principles of safeguarding sovereignty, shelving disputes, pursuing peace and reciprocity, and promoting joint exploration and development in dealing with disputes in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).”
It called on neighboring nations in the South China Sea “to abide by the principles and spirit of international law, temper their actions, and refrain from implementing unilateral measures that could affect peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
“Dialogue should replace confrontation, and parties should work together to seek a peaceful resolution to disputes concerning the South China Sea,” it said.
Although tension remains high in the West Philippine Sea, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said no reinforcements have been sent to Ayungin to beef up the handful of government troops stationed in the area.
Gazmin said Ayungin Shoal belongs to the Philippines and that Manila would defend the territory up to the last soldier.
The shoal is 120 nautical miles from Rizal, Palawan province, but more or less 500 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese province of Hainan.
The Spratlys are claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.
WITH A REPORT FROM AFP