Coast Guard, BFAR drive away Chinese vessels from PH shoal
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines on Wednesday said its maritime patrols had twice driven Chinese vessels away from a shoal within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
It was the first time since President Duterte took office in 2016 that the government disclosed such a move by Philippine ships against Chinese vessels.
The action by ships from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) followed an escalation of the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing when more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels swarmed Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in March.
The presence of the Chinese vessels prompted several diplomatic protests by the Philippines demanding that China withdraw all its vessels from the West Philippine Sea and waters within the country’s 370-kilometer EEZ.
Fishing ban rejected
The Philippine government also rejected China’s fishing ban in the South China Sea that included parts of the country’s EEZ and told Filipino fishermen to ignore it.
China, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea, annually imposes the prohibition on a large swath of the waterway from May 1 to Aug. 16 purportedly to conserve fishery resources.
The area includes those above the 12th parallel, which roughly covers waters west of Palawan’s Busuanga Island all the way north past Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the national security adviser and chair of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), on Wednesday said the ban “encompasses a large portion of our area.”
“But that should not cover our fishing boats, only theirs,” he said in an interview with Teleradyo. “In fact, we are protesting that. Why would they proclaim a fishing ban on the West Philippine Sea? Our EEZ?”
In a statement on Tuesday night, the task force said it “opposes” the unilateral fishing ban announced by China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Areas in waters “within the territory and jurisdiction of the Philippines.”
“The NTF-WPS reiterates that our fisherfolk are encouraged to go out and fish in our waters on the West Philippine Sea,” it said.
The task force said the PCG and BFAR patrols, which increased following the swarming of Julian Felipe, would continue.
“The NTF-WPS emphasizes that the maritime exercises and patrols routinely conducted by the PCG and BFAR are part of the maritime law enforcement activities of its member agencies in the exercise of Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights over our territorial seas and EEZ, respectively,” the task force said.
“The government is firm in its resolve to protect what is ours for the benefit of the Filipinos,” it said. “We reiterate our call to all nations and stakeholders to reconsider their actions, cooperate and comply with their international obligations.”
Show of courage
Last week, a PCG-BFAR patrol drove away Chinese vessels, which were steel-hulled and about 48 meters long, from Sabina Shoal off Palawan on two separate occasions.
Reacting to the incidents, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the actions taken by the PCG and BFAR showed “Filipino courage.”
“It is not the weapon but the hand that holds it and never lets it go until death loosens its grip on the handle. We can rest easy now. Our country is in good hands. In the night of our times we can say at first light that we knew people who knew how to die—in this watch,” he said on Twitter on Wednesday.
“Our President could stop this anytime but look he hasn’t,” he added. “Here is the iron glove of independent foreign policy in my watch.”
On Wednesday, the PCG released a video taken on April 27 from BRP Cabra showing several Chinese vessels about 117 km west of Mapankal Point in Palawan’s Rizal town.
“To unidentified foreign vessels at Sabina Shoal. This is Philippine Coast Guard. We are BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409). You are within Philippine exclusive economic zone. You are requested to provide the following: name of vessel, intention, last and next port of call on Channel 16,” a female crew member could be heard saying in the background.
Commodore Armand Balilo, the PCG spokesperson, said the crew member was issuing a radio challenge to the seven Chinese ships that had anchored in the area.
Unable to receive a response after three radio transmissions, the BRP Cabra, and the BFAR vessels MCS-3002 and MCS-3004 sailed toward the Chinese.
But before the Philippine ships reached them, the boats lifted anchor and sailed away. They were followed by the Filipinos to ensure that they had left the shoal, Balilo said.
Two days later, BRP Cabra returned to the shoal and again found five Chinese militia ships, which left the area when Philippine vessels appeared.
Balilo said the patrols could not tell whether they were the same vessels from two days earlier or from those that had swarmed Julian Felipe because “they all look alike.”
Balilo said PCG and BFAR vessels had also been deployed to Panatag and the Kalayaan Island Group.
‘F’ word diplomacy
The continued presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters drove Locsin to tell China on Twitter last Monday to “get the fuck out.”
He was promptly admonished by Malacañang. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said such swear words should not be used in diplomacy and reminded Cabinet members that only Mr. Duterte could use them.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Locsin apologized to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, saying “there is no excuse for bad manners.”
But he repeated his earlier remark that China was “free to say whatever it wants,” but that the entire West Philippine Sea and Panatag belonged to the Philippines “not by mere claim but by absolute right and legal victory that, President Duterte said, can never be compromised or alienated in any manner and to an extent however small.”
He was referring to the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines, which invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea. Beijing continues to ignore the ruling.
“Every drop of water and every feature within our Exclusive Economic Zone—and outside it like Pag-asa—is ours and not and never China’s. The President no less said it before the UN General Assembly,” Locsin said.
Pag-asa is the biggest island in the Kalayaan Island Group occupied by Filipinos.
A Chinese foreign ministry statement said that with his expletive-laden tweet, Locsin was engaging in “megaphone diplomacy.”
In response, the country’s top diplomat said: “No megaphone; it was an outburst of temper under repeated provocations in close succession by China against its Philippine neighbor which has kept reaching out for a measure of respect. It won’t happen again.”
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