MANILA, Philippines – The BRP Pampanga, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol ship, is “on standby” and “ready for deployment” to the Scarborough, or Panatag shoal in the West Philippine Sea, known to the rest of the world as the South China Sea, the PCG spokesperson said.
Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, the PCG spokesman, however, said Sunday they were still waiting for the go-ahead from both the Department of National Defense and Department of Foreign Affairs.
The BRP Pampanga was one of several Philippine vessels that earlier faced off with Chinese ships at the disputed rock formation, which the Philippines also calls Bajo de Masinloc. On the other hand, China refers to the cluster of reefs and islands as Huangyan Island.
If and when directed by the authorities, the PCG search-and-rescue vessel could hook up with a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship and keep watch at the three Chinese vessels reportedly posted in that pocket of the West Philippine Sea, months after a standoff with the Philippines.
Sometime in early August, Balilo said they were “on call from higher-ups to respond to maritime incidents,” including those in the West Philippine Sea.
He noted that “maritime security, as well as meeting challenges posed by illegal fishing and marine degradation, is among our main thrusts.”
“But we’re guided by the DND and the DFA in handling incidents related to the Scarborough Shoal dispute between the Philippines and China, which we all know is a sensitive issue,” he added.
When interviewed, Balilo said only six of their nine patrol ships were operational.
But he expressed confidence the command would be “in a better position to do its search-and-rescue and other functions with the PCG acquisition in six months to one year of brand-new vessels and equipment.”
The Department of Transportation and Communications has set aside over P521.6 million for the procurement of at least 431 units of aluminum V-shaped hull, rigid hull and rubber boats, as well as jet skis, radio equipment and more than 3,440 life vests and 1,724 flares.
In 2014, the PCG will most likely get 12 brand-new patrol boats from Japan, according to the Japanese Embassy in Pasay City.
Tokyo has been helping the Philippine government modernize the PCG since 1990.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing started in early April when the Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio del Pilar tried to apprehend seven Chinese fishing boats it caught poaching off on Scarborough Shoal.
At one point, both the BRP Pampanga and the BRP Edsa, another PCG ship, were reportedly harassed by the FLEC 310, said to be China’s most modern maritime surveillance ship.
In a statement, the DFA said “the speeding FLEC 310 approached the two Philippine vessels at around 20 knots and then veered away, generating a two-meter wave.”
The foreign office said a PCG report disclosed the “bullying” took place as the BRP Edsa was relieving the BRP Pampanga.
No damage was inflicted on the two ships, which did not react to the bullying by the Chinese vessel, it added.
In mid-June, the ships from the Philippines were ordered pulled out by President Benigno Aquino III supposedly due to bad weather. They had not been asked to return to the disputed area since.
China welcomed the Philippine government’s decision to order home its two vessels.
The DFA later announced that the Chinese government had done the same. But Beijing denied that its ships had withdrawn from the area.
At this writing, Malacañang had yet to say when the Philippine vessels would return to Bajo de Masinloc.
On Friday, the PCG denied a TV report that the BRP Pampanga had left Poro Point in La Union for the shoal.
In a related development, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario disclosed on Saturday that China “to date, still has three ships at the Bajo de Masinloc.”
Speaking before the Philippine Military Academy faculty and cadet corps in Baguio City, he said the President had “called on our northern neighbor (China) to respect our Exclusive Economic Zone and withdraw their vessels which remain in the shoal.”
Del Rosario opined that “the territorial issue cannot be solved overnight. However, if the Chinese ships were to be pulled out, this could create the impetus for a way forward.”
“We have a clear mandate from our President, What is ours is ours and we should stand up to protect what is ours…This mandate is not a matter of choice on the part of our government, but is dictated as an obligation by our Constitution to which the President has sworn to uphold,” he added.