Despite extrication, China still ‘closely following’ PH warship incident
Even if the grounded Philippine Navy flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar (FF-15) has been extricated from a disputed shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) early this week, China claims that it remains in contact with the Philippines about the incident and continues to monitor the developments.
“The Chinese side is closely following the grounding of the Philippine navy ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar near Banyue Jiao of Nansha Qundao. We maintain close communication with the Philippine side in this regard,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Wednesday, using the Chinese names for Hasa Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal) in the Spratly Islands.
The warship was pulled to sea last Monday, six days after it ran aground in the vicinity of the disputed shoal, located 60 nautical miles from Rizal, Palawan. It is currently being towed to Subic by two commercial tugboats for damage assessment and repair, and is expected to arrive on Friday.
BRP Gregorio del Pilar is one of the three former US Coast Guard cutters acquired during the previous administration and is the lead ship of her class.
“According to the information provided by the Chinese coastguard vessel which is on standby at the scene, the Philippine side retrieved the aground vessel and returned it to safe harbor on the early morning of September 4. According to our primary survey at the scene, we have not found oil slick or other consequences which may damage the environment caused by the grounding,” Hua told reporters.
The spokesperson also claimed that the Philippines immediately notified its Chinese counterpart of the incident.
“Our two sides discussed China’s assisting in the search and rescue efforts. The Chinese coastguard vessel which is on standby in the relevant waters also maintain good interactions with the Philippine ships. The Philippine side expressed their thanks for China’s goodwill,” Hua said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said that he declined the assistance offered by China because the Philippines can do it on its own.
China appears to have been comforted that the ship was finally extricated from the shoal, amid suspicions that it was deliberately grounded like the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in 1999 to serve as a military outpost.
“There had been speculation that Manila was repeating an old trick and the BRP Gregorio del Pilar had been deliberately stranded on Half Moon Shoal, which China calls Banyue Jiao, as a Philippine navy vessel was deliberately grounded on Ren’ai Jiao in 1999, in an attempt to claim the sovereignty rights over the reef and its surrounding waters,” said an editorial piece from state-run China Daily.
“Nearly 20 years have passed and the Philippines has yet to tow away the rusty ship, which it has been using as a military outpost,” it added.
It praised the relations of the two countries, saying that it was now “resilient enough to withstand any unexpected incident.”
“By handling this unexpected incident in a prompt and respectful way, the Philippines has shown that countries in the region can manage their differences, build trust, and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” it added.
President Rodrigo Duterte chose to seek warmer ties with China after a bitter territorial dispute over the South China Sea during the previous administration.
Despite the friendly relationship between the two countries, China continues to assert “indisputable sovereignty” over the disputed waters with its nine-dash line claim. It was invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016 but China has refused to acknowledge the ruling. /muf
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