CHINA attempted to restart reclamation at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but was stopped by the United States last year, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana bared on Thursday.
The incident, according to Lorenzana, happened in May last year when the US “quietly” told China to stop reclamation in Panatag, also called Bajo de Masinloc, located 124 nautical miles northwest of Luzon.
“There was a plan by the Chinese to build, to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. In fact, we received a report from the Americans that there were barges already loaded with soil and construction materials going to Scarborough Shoal but the Americans I think told the Chinese, don’t do it. For some reason the Chinese stopped,” Lorenzana revealed in a forum in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
The Defense chief immediately clarified that the manner in which the US stopped the reclamation was not authoritative as “they have channels of talking to each other.”
“So that’s the red line, according to the United States, building something at the Scarborough Shoal is a red line to them,” he added.
Even President Rodrigo Duterte had stated that once the Chinese begin exploring and putting rigs in the disputed waterways, he would talk to Beijing, Lorenzana said.
Over the weekend, Lorenzana and other Cabinet members were invited to the USS Carl Vinson patrolling the South China Sea, where they witnessed fighter jets taking off and landing on the American aircraft carrier.
The Defense chief noted that the structures built by the Chinese were “very extensive.”
“They have already reclaimed maybe close to about 500 hectares of land in that area, and interestingly they (Americans) also showed us some of the islands, seven islands that we have occupied ever since in the Spratlys, and interestingly the islands that were occupied now by the Philippines are all islands, not shoal,” he said.
Chinese ships in Benham Rise
Besides Panatag Shoal, the Chinese are also scouting or exploring Benham Plateau, also known as Benham Rise, east of the Isabela coastline to “put submarines” there.
A Chinese survey ship, according to Lorenzana, was monitored sailing the territory last year.
“One of their survey ships is also plying the Benham Rise already, last year…it was monitored for about three months,” he said.
“According to our marine patrol they have been monitored mostly in the Recto Bank, … they have been there many times because they have plotted the routes, but we already submitted the report to the secretary of Foreign Affairs to make a protest to the Chinese ambassador. We have to protest because we have to show these people that we consider those areas as ours,” Lorenzana added.
The Defense chief said he had ordered the Philippine Navy to drive the survey ship away if it showed up anew.
A United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal last year affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights to areas within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, including Panatag Shoal and Mischief Reef.
Lorenzana said the Chinese knew they would lose any case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which was why Beijing opted not to participate.
“Now the problem with the Chinese, they are cherry-picking the laws that they are going to follow…they can do it because to them might is right, they have the power there, they know that we do not have the wherewithal to oppose them, so we continue to monitor the happenings there, we have regular marine patrol in the West Philippine Sea by the (Armed Forces of the Philippines) Western Command,” he said.
When the arbitration ruling was released in July, Lorenzana said he wanted to recommend to the Cabinet and the President “to assert our right immediately and inform the Chinese that we will send our navy and drive them away from the Scarborough Shoal.”
Following a number of discussions however, Lorenzana said the President told him the Philippines should not brag about its legal victory and not taunt the Chinese.
“That is why in September of last year we went to China I was there with him (Duterte) and talked personally to [Chinese President] Xi Jin Ping and after that, when we came back here, our fishermen were allowed to go back to the Scarborough area to fish and they have been doing that ever since,” he said.
When Duterte did this, Lorenzana said there were public misconceptions that the President had set aside the tribunal ruling.
“That’s not true, he said this many times in front of us…let us just manage the conflict with the Chinese and ask the Chinese to allow our people to go back to their livelihood,” he explained.
While the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard go to the disputed area often, security officials get most of their intelligence from fishermen who are there every day, Lorenzana said.