MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang is in no hurry to hold the US Navy accountable for its minesweeper that ran aground in the Tubbataha Reefs, even as a militant group has called for an inspection of the ship.
President Benigno Aquino III’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said the executive department would rather wait for the outcome of an investigation into the USS Guardian’s grounding before deciding on the accountability of the ship or its crew.
“It’s more prudent to wait for the results of the investigation that will be conducted by the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs), DND (Department of National Defense) and other agencies, and then come up with recommendation in light of laws that we have in place,” Valte said over government radio.
She said the immediate concern would be to extricate the ship “with the least damage” from the marine sanctuary, recognized by United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) as a World Heritage Site.
Valte said the Philippine Navy, which deployed three ships to the reef for on-site monitoring, could help extricate the marooned ship if requested.
“There’s no problem with us if our help is needed,” she said.
The minesweeper, part of a US navy contingent patrolling the South China Sea, was en route to its next port of call after a stop in the Philippines when it grazed the reef and got stuck some 128 kilometers off Palawan before dawn on Thursday.
The US Navy blamed a faulty map used by the minesweeper that misplaced the location of the Tubbataha Reefs.
With the 688-meter ship lying on some 10 meters of coral, Philippine environmental groups have called for US accountability for the destruction of the national marine treasure.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet acknowledged that the grounding could have damaged the reef, even as it dispatched an assessment team to plan and execute the delicate extraction from the reefs.
Sen. Francis Escudero, chair of the committee on environment and natural resources, said he was considering opening an inquiry into the minesweeper’s grounding and the damage it has caused to the reefs.
Following news of the grounding, Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the Department of Foreign Affairs should ask the US government to explain the presence of the minesweeper in the reefs.
Meanwhile, the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan on Sunday pressed the government to assert its sovereignty and ascertain the real status of the ship. It said the Philippines had the right to inspect the ship.
“It is patently embarrassing that the PH government does not even want, at this point, to raise the issue of liability of US troops in the destruction of our coral reef. It smacks of puppetry and subservience. Whatever happened to asserting sovereignty?” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said.
Reyes added that the government should ascertain whether the ship was sinking by inspecting it, adding it should not allow the US forces “to disrespect our local authorities and conceal vital information.”
The group also called on the government to stop further port calls by US forces in view of the grounding. It said the Philippines has been hosting American troops and ships here for rest and recreation, refueling and repair.
“Surely there is a problem with the Visiting Forces Agreement and the port calls and exercises undertaken by US forces in our country. The frequency of port calls supposedly allowed under the VFA transforms the country into a virtual military base. They come here anytime, roam our waters freely, and engage in unspecified activities,” Reyes said.
“And when incidents happen, like the dumping of toxic wastes or the destruction of our coral reef, the US seems to buck any kind of accountability and even disrespects our local authorities. So why should we allow US ships to continue making port calls? Why allow the VFA to continue?” he added.
Bayan cited Article 6 of the VFA which stated: “For claims against the United States, other than contractual claims and those to which paragraph 1 applies, the United States Government, in accordance with United States law regarding foreign claims, will pay just and reasonable compensation in settlement of meritorious claims for damage, loss, personal injury or death, caused by acts or omissions of United States personnel, or otherwise incident to the non-combat activities of the United States forces.”
The Aquino government, on the other hand, has welcomed the presence of US naval forces in Asia in view of a brewing conflict with regional superpower China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, among them parts of the Spratly group of islands, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
The territorial claims by the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, among others, reportedly block China’s submarine lanes to the Pacific.