MANILA, Philippines — Just days after they reportedly left, Chinese ships have returned to the Philippine-claimed shoal off Zambales, indicating that intrusions continue despite the country’s bid to halt such breaches of maritime territory before the United Nations.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed on Monday that at least two Chinese maritime surveillance ships from China have sailed back into the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc), a territory in the West Philippine Sea some 220 kilometers west of Zambales.
“Yesterday, we received a report from the Philippine Navy confirming that Chinese ships are back in Bajo de Masinloc in Panatag Shoal. So they come, go back and fourth in that area,” said DFA spokesperson Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez.
He said reports of Chinese ships coming in and out of the shoal’s vicinity was routine.
“They have been intruding in that area for some time now and those reports of Chinese ships leaving and coming back have been a normal report,” said Hernandez.
The shoal is among Philippine-claimed territories in the West Philippine Sea that are also being claimed by the Chinese under its nine-dash line map. The territory, believed to be rich in natural resources, was the site of a tense standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships in April 2012.
Philippine ships have long left the area but maritime patrols continue to monitor the movement of Chinese vessels. Fishermen from Zambales have meanwhile reported being turned away by the Chinese from the shoal, part of traditional fishing grounds for local fisherfolk.
Hernandez reiterated the country’s sovereignty over the shoal and reminded China to respect established maritime boundaries in the disputed waters.
“Our position remains that Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of the Philippine territory and China should respect our maritime entitlements in that area,” said Hernandez.
The Philippines has a standing diplomatic protest to the presence of China’s vessels in the area.
“The protest has been there and what we do is, when there is an opportunity for discussion, we point it out to them (the Chinese) that this area is an integral part of the Philippine national territory and therefore, China should respect our maritime entitlements in that area,” said Hernandez.
The Chinese are also known to maintain a fleet near Ayungin Shoal, a territory which the Philippines’ contends to also be within its exclusive economic (EEZ). Hernandez said China’s vessels have been known to also “come and go in the area.”
The Philippines has haled China before the United Nations arbitral tribunal in hopes of stopping Chinese incursions into its EEZ and to invalidate China’s nine-dash line claim in the waters. China has refused to take part in the proceedings but the process continues under provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario also extended an invitation to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit Manila for “consultations” on the territorial dispute following their tense exchange at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) regional security forum in Brunei.
The DFA is still awaiting China’s official response to the invitation.
China has agreed to hold initial talks with the Asean on the conclusion of the Code of Conduct on the West Philippine Sea, a legally binding document that aims to deter conflict among claimant nations.
Other than the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have partial claims to the disputed territories, conflicting with China’s assertion of ownership over almost the entire West Philippine Sea.