PH deploys 2 patrol boats to Panatag
The government is “testing the waters” by sending Philippine Coast Guard vessels to Panatag Shoal, according to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade.
The deployment of maritime patrols comes just days after Filipino fishermen have been able to fish at the disputed shoal, located off the coast of Zambales province, without being harassed by the China Coast Guard.
Asked about the purpose of the deployment, Tugade said it was for “roving inspection, testing the waters.”
He said he did not think the deployment would lead to a clash between Filipino and Chinese coast guards.
“That is farthest from our mind right now,” Tugade said in an interview in Malacañang on Thursday.
Cmdr. Armand Balilo, spokesperson for the Philippine Coast Guard, said two vessels were sent to Panatag on Thursday and three others had been placed on standby for deployment to the shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal.
The vessels that left for Panatag on Thursday were the BRP Tubbataha and BRP Davao del Norte.
On standby were three monitoring control and surveillance vessels, Balilo said.
Another vessel, the BRP Pampanga, would serve as backup, he said.
“Our mission, our purpose, is to check on the condition and situation of our fishermen in the area and to sustain what we have started and that is to have government presence in the area,” Balilo said.
“The bottom line is, we should not make any provocative actions so as not to affect whatever diplomatic efforts are being made by the President and the government,” he said.
“For us, what is important is for Philippine presence to be felt in the area,” he added.
Filipino and Chinese officials reached a “friendly” arrangement for the return of Filipino fishermen to Panatag during President Duterte’s state visit to China last month.
China seized Panatag after a two-month standoff with the Philippines in 2012, compelling Manila to challenge Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea in the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The court handed down a decision on July 12, invalidating China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea and saying Beijing had violated Manila’s rights to fish and explore for resources in waters within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the strategic waterway.
Panatag is well within the Philippine EEZ, but China, which did not take part in the arbitration, rejected the ruling, insisting it has “historic rights” to the South China Sea.
Instead of pressing the tribunal’s ruling on China, President Duterte preferred bilateral talks to settle the dispute. He traveled to China last month for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
During his China visit, Mr. Duterte declared his “separation” from the United States.
Pleased, the Chinese sent him home with pledges of low-interest loans and investment in Philippine projects, but no signed agreement that they were giving Panatag back to the Filipinos. —WITH A REPORT FROM TINA G. SANTOS
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