PH enhances presence of PCG flagship after laser hit
The Philippines on Friday ramped up its response to Chinese harassment of Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), announcing the deployment of the coast guard’s flagship and largest vessel to the troubled waters as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) accused Beijing of “destabilizing” peace and stability in the region.
The deployment of the ship on orders of President Marcos was disclosed after a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship beamed a powerful military-grade laser on a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol boat that temporarily blinded its crew while they were supporting a Navy resupply mission to a military outpost at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal on Feb. 6.
The shoal is in the WPS, waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China is also claiming Ayungin and its foreign ministry spokesperson said the Filipino vessel entered Chinese waters around the shoal without permission.
In a statement on Friday, the PCG said its flagship, BRP Teresa Magbanua, was deployed on Jan. 28 to the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), a cluster of islands in the Spratlys west of Palawan province where the Philippines, China and Vietnam have conflicting claims of ownership and where the Chinese have built several artificial islands that they had turned into military bases.
Although the ship’s deployment was timed for the fishing season, the PCG said the President’s order was intended to strengthen Filipino coast guard presence and operations in the West Philippine sea.
“As the PCG steadily strengthens and increases its maritime patrol, search and rescue, and law enforcement operations in the WPS, it remains firmly committed to safeguarding Philippine interests and rights within the bounds of international law and conventions,” the PCG said.
Some of the crew of the ship boarded Filipino fishing boats around the KIG and told the fishermen to radio the PCG or the shore units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines when they need assistance.
“As the summer season draws near, the PCG expects the number of Filipino fishing vessels that sail and fish in the WPS to greatly increase,” the PCG said.
More than 300,000 metric tons of fish, or about 7 percent of the country’s annual fisheries production, comes from the WPS, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. The height of the fishing season in the WPS is from March to May.
Expose bullying tactics
Filipino fishermen often bear the brunt of Chinese harassment to impose China’s claims on nearly the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway for both international trade and regional stability.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG spokesperson on the WPS, said the laser incident was the latest in a series of harassments by the Chinese against Filipino fisherfolk who are just making a living and also to prevent PCG patrols within the country’s EEZ.
“The only reason why the public has been more aware is because our approach right now is to expose their aggressive behavior and bullying tactics in the WPS,” he said in an interview on Friday with INQside Look, an online video program of Inquirer.net.
“But no matter what the dangers it will bring, even for the safety of our crew and vessels, and no matter how small our vessels are compared to CCG’s, the PCG will heed the call of [President Marcos] to constantly patrol the WPS to ensure the protection of our waters and the Filipino fishermen,” Tarriela said.
The 97-meter Teresa Magbanua, which can carry a crew of 67, is powered by two 6,600-kilowatt engines. It has a maximum speed of 24 knots, and an endurance of not less than 7,408 kilometers.
The ship last week drove away a Vietnamese-flagged vessel that was engaged in long-line fishing at Recto (Reed) Bank, which is closer to Palawan than the KIG.
Appearing on Friday’s Laging Handa briefing, DFA spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza called on China to stop its provocative actions in the South China Sea for which the President had personally expressed “serious concern.”
“That is why we’re calling on China to desist and restrain from this action because it is not only damaging, dangerous, it is also destabilizing in terms of the peace and stability in the region,” Daza said.
The Chinese foreign ministry denied it had used military-grade laser on the PCG boat, saying its coast guard crew used handheld lasers only to determine the distance between the two vessels and the direction the Filipinos were heading.
China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, showed pictures of the laser equipment that Beijing said was used by the CCG to a select group of reporters during a press briefing on Thursday. They looked like speed gun lasers used to catch overspeeding cars.
He said the lasers could not inflict damage on people.
“We have a different account of what happened and also different understanding. We need to narrow down that account” Huang said.
He said he noticed a “pattern” in the encounters between Philippine and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea and this was the “lack of communication” which leads to misunderstanding that could cause “some type of friction.”
He said the CCG and PCG “should exercise restraint and refrain from taking any unilateral and provocative actions.”
“You know by the end of the day, that water is a disputed area,” Huang said.
Daza dismissed the Chinese claim, saying the DFA was standing by the report of the PCG on the incident.
“We call on China that while we want to engage with China, the engagement should be based on facts and based on goodwill,” she said.
Lack of congruence
“What we’re seeing at this point in time is the lack of congruence between what is actually being said, what is being announced and what is happening on the ground or on the seas,” she said, adding that there had to be “some congruence so that our relations can actually move forward.”
Daza said the Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea includes shadowing, harassment, illegal radio challenges and dangerous maneuvers, which are not consistent with the freedom of navigation accorded to states, especially coastal states like the Philippines. She said China’s use of lasers violatsed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as well rules on safe navigation.
On Tuesday, Mr. Marcos summoned Huang to express his “serious concern over the increasing frequency and intensity of actions” by the Chinese against the PCG and Filipino fishermen.
According to Daza, the Philippines is always “open to engagement at different levels at different forums” but she said this “should not in any way sacrifice the national interest of the country.”
—WITH A REPORT FROM JACOB LAZARO
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