Coast Guard cuts off Panatag Shoal barriers on Marcos’ order
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has removed the floating barriers placed by Chinese vessels in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in a “special operation” ordered by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
“In compliance with the instruction of the President, the chairman [of the] National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, Secretary Eduardo Año, has directed the PCG to execute a special operation to remove the floating barrier that obstructed the southeast entrance of Bajo de Masinloc,” PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela said, referring to the old name of Panatag Shoal and without offering details of the operation.
“The decisive action of the PCG to remove the barrier aligns with international law and the Philippines’ sovereignty over the shoal,” he said.
The China Coast Guard was caught in the act of installing booms that extended to 300 meters in the southeast portion of the shoal during a routine patrol by a PCG-manned Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship last week.
“The barrier posed a hazard to navigation, a clear violation of international law. It also hinders the conduct of fishing and livelihood activities of Filipino fisherfolk in [Panatag Shoal], which is an integral part of the Philippine national territory,” he said.
Panatag Shoal, a rich fishing ground off Zambales province, is a small ring of reefs located within the country’s 270-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In 2012, China seized control of the shoal after a tense standoff with the Philippine Navy, prompting the government to file a case against Beijing before the international arbitration court.
The 2016 arbitration ruling classified the shoal as a traditional fishing ground that should be shared with neighboring countries such as China and Vietnam. But Beijing, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea, rejected the ruling.
“The 2016 Arbitral Award has affirmed that [Panatag Shoal] is the traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen. Thus, any obstruction hindering the livelihoods of Filipino fisherfolk in the shoal violates international law. It also infringes on the Philippines’ sovereignty over [Panatag Shoal],” Tarriela said.
Earlier, Año said they would “take all appropriate actions” to remove the buoys placed by the Chinese coast guard.
“The placement by the People’s Republic of China of a barrier violates the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen whose rights have been affirmed by the 2016 arbitral ruling,” Año said.
“It ruled categorically that such action by [China] violated the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen in the shoal who have been fishing there for centuries. Any State that prevents them from doing artisanal fishing there violates Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and international law, in general,” he said.
Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla agreed that the PCG could remove the floating barrier for infringing on the Philippines’ EEZ.
“It’s within our [EEZ], then we will just declare it to be such and that it’s a violation of our right to our [EEZ] and we can remove this thing,” Remulla told reporters on Monday. “That is clearly a violation of our rights under Unclos.”
Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general of the National Security Council (NSC), said on Monday at the Bagong Pilipinas Ngayon news briefing that the Philippine government had the right to remove the floating barrier.
“As part of our EEZ, we have rights there—what’s called our maritime entitlements — particularly for our fishermen, and they should be free to fish there,” Malaya said.
“This means, if the question is ‘do we have a right to remove the barrier that was placed,’ there is. The Unclos is clear there, and our country has the right to remove what’s been placed by the Chinese coast guard,” he added.
Senators were also arranging a visit to Panatag Shoal to inspect the removal of the floating barrier, according to Sen. Jinggoy Estrada.
In an interview, Estrada, chair of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, said that he was working on seeking clearance from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“These repeated incursions by the Chinese have really become too annoying, as China keeps occupying areas that the Philippines rightfully owns,” he said.
“We are losing patience already,” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva also condemned the setting up of the barrier, which, he argued, showed China’s “rude behavior and lack of respect” for the Philippines as a sovereign country.
“Should we still consider China as a supposed friend that continues to bully the Philippines and take advantage of this purported relationship?” he asked.
According to Villanueva, the majority bloc in the Senate supported President Marcos’ call for the immediate passage of the Philippine Maritime Zones Act, which would be the basis for an updated Philippine map that would rebuff China’s 10-dash line claims.
In the House, Deputy Speaker Rep. Ralph Recto criticized China for “playing a different kind of hunger games” in the West Philippine Sea by conducting a food blockade that is a “crime against humanity.”
In a statement on Monday, the DFA said the Philippines would take “all appropriate measures” to uphold the country’s sovereignty and the livelihood of Filipino fishermen against China’s latest intrusion.
Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra, meanwhile, said the Office of the Solicitor General would review “all incidents” in the West Philippine Sea since the country won the arbitral award in 2016 that invalidated China’s claims.
“We need solid evidence that will stand up in any tribunal. We will carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each legal option before we make any recommendation to the President and to the DFA,” he said.