Marcos: PH to keep defending territory, fishers’ rights in WPS
President Marcos on Friday said the Philippines would put up a strong defense of its territory and the rights of its fishermen following China’s recent installation of a 300-meter barrier to block the entrance to a lagoon at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales province.
The President, in his first remarks about the latest cause of tension over access to a strategic shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), said the country was upholding its rights to fish in its exclusive economic zone.
“What we will do is to continue defending the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen to catch fish in areas where they are doing it for hundreds of years already,” Marcos told reporters.
On his orders, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Monday cut the barrier set up by China that blocked access to the disputed Panatag Shoal, an area Beijing has controlled for over a decade. A “special operation” by the PCG removed the barrier, noting that its installation was a violation of international law and a hazard to navigation.
But the China Coast Guard (CCG) has disputed the Philippine version of the events, while the United States has weighed in behind ally Manila, with a senior defense official calling its move a “bold step” and underlining its treaty obligations to defend its former colony.
“Many of these are operational issues and that I really cannot talk about,” Marcos said. “But in terms of taking down the barrier, I don’t see what else we could do.”
Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin said the government would not surrender an inch of Philippine territory in the face of China’s persistent encroachment on the WPS.
“You know that this is an administration that will not lose an inch of Philippine territory or sovereignty,” Bersamin said in an interview with broadcaster Anthony Taberna. The interview was posted on Taberna’s Facebook account and uploaded to his YouTube channel on Thursday.
Bersamin also confirmed that the Philippines was considering filing a new complaint against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, the Netherlands, over the reported harvesting and destruction of corals in the WPS off Palawan province.
“This is the position that the government will take most likely,” he said. “But whether or not we will file another case against China is one of the options and I think our lawyers are seriously giving this a study.”
Even if China will not participate in the proceedings at The Hague, the Philippines is determined “to exact some accountability on the part of China,” Bersamin said.
At a briefing on Friday, PCG spokesperson for the WPS Commodore Jay Tarriela showed to reporters one of the anchors of the barrier laid out by China in Panatag.
Tarriela said the anchor would be sent to the National Task Force for the WPS, possibly to be used as evidence in filing another diplomatic protest or arbitration case against Beijing.
The anchor, with a roughly 1.2-meter (4-foot) shank and 1.2-meter (4-foot) stock, weighs between 20 kilograms and 30 kilograms. Tarriela showed the part of the rope which the PCG cut off to retrieve the anchor.
CCG spokesperson Gan Yu earlier said the floating barriers were “voluntarily removed.”
“The claim made by the Philippine side about removing the Chinese blocking net is completely fabricated and self-orchestrated,” he said.
Asked by reporters to comment, Tarriela said: “We did not claim that we are the ones who removed the barrier. What we did was cut the anchor of the barrier… so it (the shoal) would be left wide open.”
“The fact that we have in our possession the anchor was enough evidence that we are not fabricating our story. I don’t think I can easily fabricate an anchor this big,” he added.
Tarriela said the barrier had two anchors on its ends so it could not be dragged by the wind and currents.
He said Chinese authorities had not yet contacted the PCG to have the anchor returned.
Tarriela said the PCG and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources conducted a maritime domain awareness flight in the vicinity of Panatag on Thursday morning.
During their more than an hour flight, he said “there is no more floating barrier at the mouth of Bajo de Masinloc,” referring to the other name of Panatag.
However, they monitored three CCG vessels—two of which were inside the lagoon, and another one patrolling the waters around it—and a Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessel.
These were fewer than the four CCG ships and two to three CMM vessels that were seen when the PCG discovered the barriers last week.
However, they only saw two Filipino fishing boats in the waters near Panatag.
Despite the removal of the barrier, Tarriela admitted that it would “still be a struggle” for Filipino fisherfolk to enter the lagoon as CCG ships continue to guard the entrance of the shoal.
Should China put another barrier in the WPS, he said the PCG would immediately remove them, adding: “We no longer need to wait for instruction from President Marcos, because the instruction was already given.”
Ties between the Philippines and China have deteriorated of late, in large part due to overtures from Marcos to deepen defense ties with Washington, including offering expanded access to its troops, ostensibly training and humanitarian purposes.
China, which says Panatag Shoal is its territory, has chided the United States for what it calls provocations in the region.
A senior US defense official on Thursday said the Philippines’ removal of the Chinese barrier was “a bold step in defending their own sovereignty.”
During a congressional hearing, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Lindsey Ford commended the Philippines’ action and reaffirmed Washington’s security commitments to its Asian ally.
“The department has been incredibly clear that when it comes to our treaty commitments to the Philippines, we believe an armed attack against Philippine Armed Forces, public vessels, aircraft, apply to the South China Sea. That includes the Philippine Coast Guard,” Ford told a House of Representatives subcommittee on foreign affairs.
“We stand by those commitments absolutely,” she said.
Control of the Panatag Shoal, seized in 2012 by China, is a sensitive issue as it formed part of a legal case filed by the Philippines in the PCA. The court ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea had no basis under international law.
China has refused to recognize the landmark ruling.