Philippines urged: Seek UN force on disputed seas
With China aggressively asserting its claims in the West Philippine Sea, a lawmaker suggested on Thursday that it might be time for the Philippines to ask the United Nations for a peacekeeping force to prevent armed clashes between the two countries in the disputed waters.
Muntinlupa Representative Rodolfo Biazon, chairman of the House committee on national defense, raised the question of asking for UN help amid reports that a large fleet of Chinese fishing vessels had been sighted near Pag-asa Island in the Philippine part of the Spratly archipelago.
The military’s Western Command confirmed the sighting on Wednesday, and the Navy said yesterday that it had vessels ready to stop the Chinese fishing fleet from entering Philippine territory.
“We will assert our sovereignty in that area because that’s our territory,” Commodore Rustom Peña, commander of the military’s Naval Forces West, told reporters in an interview Thursday.
But President Benigno Aquino called for calm, saying the government was looking for a peaceful resolution of the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China.
Reporters asked Mr. Aquino pointblank: Is the Philippines ready for war?
“We are always ready,” he replied, but quickly added that his government stressed the search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Mr. Aquino answered reporters’ questions on the sidelines of ceremonies at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which celebrated its 114th anniversary yesterday that coincided with the 148th birth anniversary of Apolinario Mabini, the brains of the Philippine Revolution against Spain.
The President refused to comment on the report that the Chinese fishing fleet was accompanied by two warships. The whole world “could testify” to what is happening at Panatag Shoal, Mr. Aquino said, referring to a shoal in the West Philippine Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines.
China sent a fleet of 30 fishing vessels to the Spratlys on July 11, a month after Vietnam passed a new maritime law that put the archipelago and the Paracel Islands under its sovereignty.
China is claiming the Paracels and the Spratlys, and has put them under its administration through a new city called Sansha in June to strengthen its grip on the disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan are claiming parts of the Spratlys. But China claims all of those islands as well as other rock and coral formations in the West Philippine Sea believed to be sitting on vast oil and gas deposits. The islands also straddle major sea lanes vital to global trade.
The Philippines refers to the strategic waterway as the West Philippine Sea. China calls it the South China Sea while Vietnam refers to it as the East Sea.
The Chinese fishing fleet, accompanied by a cargo vessel and two People’s Liberation Army missile frigates, arrived on the Vietnamese side of the Spratlys on July 15.
On Wednesday, the Philippine military reported sighting 20 of the Chinese fishing vessels to have moved close to Pag-asa Island on the Philippine side of the Spratlys.
Commodore Peña confirmed the Inquirer report on Thursday about the Chinese fishing fleet’s latest location.
He said 20 fishing vessels were anchored 9 kilometers off Pag-asa Island, the seat of government of the Kalayaan municipality in Palawan province.
Controlled by the Philippines since the 1970s, Pag-asa Island is located 527 km west of Palawan. It is home to 150 Filipino families. It has a town hall, a health center, an airstrip and a naval station. In June the local government opened a public school on the island.
Peña said there were no sightings of the reported military escort of the fishing fleet. “There are no other vessels there,” he said.
Asked about his assessment of the situation, Peña said he had no authority to make an assessment. “It’s the DFA which issues statements and assessments,” he said.
But the DFA was not ready with a statement. Raul Hernandez, DFA spokesperson, said the department had yet to be formally informed about the situation.
“We have not received an official report from the Navy or the Coast Guard,” Hernandez said.
The report of the Chinese fishing fleet’s presence at the Philippines’ doorstep raised questions about the country’s capability to defend its territory.
Since it does not have the hardware to fight, shouldn’t the Philippines, which has already decided to seek international arbitration to settle its territorial dispute with China, go the United Nations for help?
Speaking at a news forum in Quezon City, Biazon, a former military chief of staff, suggested that the government ask the United Nations for a peacekeeping force “if the tension rises to a dangerous level.”
He said the request could be included in the case to be brought by the DFA to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos) for the settlement of the Philippines’ dispute with China over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
“What would prevent us from proposing (that) to the United Nations if the tension rises to a dangerous level?” Biazon said.
Reacting to an observation that the Unclos did not have a clear process for enforcing Itlos rulings, Biazon said a peacekeeping force could resolve that problem.
“Of what use is the Unclos, signed by 152 nations, if it cannot be enforced?” Biazon asked.
He pointed out that the Philippines had troops in UN peacekeeping missions in conflict areas, among them the Golan Heights in the Middle East.
Both the Philippines and China are signatories to the Unclos. Beijing, however, refuses to recognize Manila’s sovereignty over territories in the West Philippine Sea that are within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, insisting that those are its territory.
China also rejects international arbitration to settle the dispute, insisting on bilateral talks with the Philippines, as it does in its disputes with other rivals for territory in the West Philippine Sea.
Biazon said the Philippine government should focus on the Unclos instead of acquiring warships and aircraft, though the country needs hardware, because the convention favored the country’s case.
Go back to Panatag
In the meantime, he said, the government should send back ships to Panatag Shoal to “show our flag” there.
Philippine and Chinese vessels faced off with each other at Panatag Shoal from early April to mid-June. The standoff temporarily ended when President Aquino ordered two government vessels to seek shelter from a storm on the night of June 15.
China called its fishing vessels home from the shoal, but not its maritime ships. President Aquino threatened to send back the Philippine vessels to the shoal unless China pulled out its maritime vessels as well.
China has not budged, and reports said Chinese fishing vessels had returned to Panatag Shoal.
Biazon said the Philippines should send a fleet of fishing vessels, escorted by the Coast Guard or even by the Navy, to the shoal to assert Philippine sovereignty.
He suggested the government should also repair or even expand the airstrip on Pag-asa Island.
Simultaneously, he said, the Philippines should proceed with joint exploration and development of energy resources within the country’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.
Biazon suggested partnerships with Japan, South Korea, the United States or European countries.
He acknowledged that such steps could increase tensions in the West Philippine Sea but he said the Philippines should not back down just because of a potential heightening of tensions.
Still, the Navy will handle an incursion in the Spratlys with caution.
“We will investigate [their presence] and then if the situation warrants, we will advise them that that’s our territory and that they should leave,” Peña said, referring to the Chinese fishing vessels anchored off Pag-asa Island.
“Once the weather gets better, we will send our boats to warn them to leave our area,” he said. “We have boats ready to be deployed there.” With reports from Michael Lim Ubac, Marlon Ramos and Tarra Quismundo
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.