The Philippines on Wednesday protested China’s move placing virtually the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), including the Philippine territory of Macclesfield Bank and its surrounding waters, under the jurisdiction of a newly created city.
Manila’s protest came as the latest sour turn in relations between the Philippines and China, which have yet to find a temporary solution to their dispute over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a resource-rich reef in the West Philippine Sea just west of Zambales province.
Also on Thursday, President Aquino urged the Chinese authorities to “balance [their] statements with the truth” in response to their accusation that he was trying to stir tension in the West Philippine Sea by asking for US help in monitoring the disputed waters.
Aquino convened his Cabinet—the second time in a week under an administration that rarely holds full Cabinet meetings—to discuss territorial issues with China and hear views on dealing with the country’s increasingly aggressive neighbor.
The President issued his strongest statement yet since he threatened last week to send government vessels back to Panatag Shoal unless China called its ships and fishing boats home.
“It’s not clear with me what the provocative statements that have been said to have come from Philippine officials, but we know there are many things being said from the other side,” Aquino told reporters in Malacañang.
“They should read what has been written from their end and, with all due respect, perhaps they should balance what they are saying with the truth,” he said.
“It has been almost three weeks since our Coast Guard vessel pulled out of [Panatag Shoal]. If [China’s] vessels … have also gone home, there’s already no more issue,” the President said. “So who could be the one prolonging this [dispute over] Panatag Shoal?”
Asked when he would order government vessels back to Panatag Shoal, Aquino said, “That will be, of course, dependent on the weather.”
Macclesfield Bank is a huge underwater group of reefs and shoals located east of the Paracel Islands, southwest of the Pratas Islands and north of the Spratly Islands in the center of the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines claims Macclesfield Bank and administers it through the provincial government of Zambales. It is one of the largest atolls in the world, covering an area of 6,500 square kilometers, and is surrounded by excellent fishing waters.
Policy of deescalation
China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs said in June that putting Macclesfield Bank, the Paracels and the Spratlys under Sansha would “further strengthen China’s administration and development” of the three island groups.
There was no immediate comment from the Chinese Embassy in Manila on the Philippines’ Macclesfield protest.
The Philippines on June 15 stepped back from a two-month maritime standoff with China at the shoal and had since imposed a policy of deescalation.
But on Monday, President Aquino said the government might ask the United States to deploy spy planes over the West Philippine Sea to help monitor the disputed waters.
And on Wednesday, after weeks of inaction, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) protested China’s latest move that impinged on Philippine sovereignty over its parts of the West Philippine Sea.
In a statement issued Thursday, the DFA said it summoned Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing on Wednesday and handed her a note protesting China’s recent declaration that placed Macclesfield Bank under the prefectural oversight of newly established Sansha City.
In June, China’s State Council declared Macclesfield Bank, Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands—known in Chinese as Zhongsha Islands, Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands—parts of Sansha City, to tighten its grip on contested parts of the West Philippine Sea amid territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.
The DFA said the extent of Sansha’s jurisdiction “violates Philippine sovereignty over the Kalayaan Group of Islands and Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal).”
China’s move also “infringes on Philippine sovereign rights over the waters and the continental shelf of the West Philippine Sea,” the DFA said.
The expansive jurisdiction of Sansha, the DFA said, “contradicts the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).” The Asean and China signed the nonaggression accord in 2002.
The DFA reiterated that the Kalayaan Group and the Bajo de Masinloc, which Manila also calls Panatag Shoal, and their surrounding waters “form an internal part of Philippine territory and maritime jurisdiction.”
Help from treaty ally
On asking the United States for spy plane overflights, Aquino said the Philippines was well within its right to ask an ally for assistance in monitoring its own territory.
“America is a treaty ally. We have a lack. They have a capability,” Aquino said. “If ever our capability would fall short, I believe we can approach them to add to our situational awareness, especially in the West Philippine Sea.”
Aquino said, however, that asking for US help in monitoring is just an option, correcting a report that seemed to indicate permission has been given for overflights.
The meeting on the territorial dispute with China began at about 1:30 p.m.
Talks, not ships
Among those seen going into the meeting were Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. Enrile is a former secretary of national defense, while Trillanes is a former Navy officer.
As the Cabinet prepared for the discussions, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo urged Malacañang to deescalate the growing tensions with China over Panatag Shoal.
Pabillo said the government should continue talking to the Chinese instead of sending back ships to the shoal.
“We can achieve [peace] through dialogue,” Pabillo said. “Don’t aggravate the situation [by sending the ships back]. Hold dialogues.”
On Tuesday, Liu Weimin, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a press briefing in Beijing that the situation in the West Philippine Sea was stable with no Philippine vessels at Panatag Shoal.
But China, the Chinese Embassy in Manila quoted Liu as saying, is “willing to continue to hold dialogues and consultations” with the Philippines on their dispute over Panatag Shoal.—With reports from Philip C. Tubeza and AP