China fleet to rescue grounded warship
A Chinese salvage party of at least five vessels and several smaller boats has arrived at a shoal off Palawan to rescue a People’s Liberation Army warship that ran aground there on Wednesday night.
The Inquirer learned that a Philippine Air Force surveillance plane flew over the area Saturday afternoon and photographed the salvage party working to free the missile frigate No. 560 from a reef at Hasa-Hasa Shoal (international name, Half Moon Shoal).
The 103.2-meter, 1,425-ton Jianghu-class frigate was patrolling disputed waters in the Spratly archipelago in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) when it ran into shallows at Hasa-Hasa Shoal, 111 kilometers west of Rizal town in Palawan, on Wednesday night, the Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday.
Quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, the Morning Herald said the frigate got “thoroughly stuck” on a reef at the shoal.
The Department of National Defense confirmed the sighting of the stranded Chinese frigate around noon Saturday.
“Yes, it is there,” said Peter Paul Galvez, spokesperson for the defense department. “It has been sighted … [I]t is still stuck there.”
A source from the military told the Inquirer that a Philippine Navy patrol ship “is in the vicinity” awaiting orders from defense authorities.
A Philippine Coast Guard vessel had also been dispatched to the area to monitor the Chinese rescue operations.
Col. Neil Estrella, regional military spokesperson, said five Chinese vessels and a number of smaller boats were assisting the grounded frigate.
Estrella said the Western Command was ready “to extend assistance to the Chinese frigate” but was waiting for orders from Malacañang.
Waiting for China to call
But Malacañang was waiting for the Chinese to call and ask for help. Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Philippines would step in only if asked for assistance.
Hasa-Hasa Shoal is part of Philippine territory in the Spratly Islands in the center of the West Philippine Sea. China is claiming all of the islands in the archipelago, parts of which are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Valte said Hasa-Hasa Shoal is disputed territory. But “dispute or no dispute, we will render assistance if needed,” she said.
The Chinese embassy said on Friday that “rescue work by the Chinese Navy is underway.”
Citing information from the Ministry of National Defense in Beijing, the embassy said the frigate ran aground at Half Moon Shoal of Nansha Island (Spratly Islands) during a routine patrol mission.
That is intrusion into Philippine territory, but Malacañang is not ready to disclose what the government plans to do.
“We will refrain from any comment because as you know we have committed not to take provocative actions under the [proposed] code of conduct [among claimant countries in the West Philippine Sea],” Valte said.
Presidential political adviser Ronald Llamas said in a text message to the Inquirer that the government’s response was under discussion. It would “be made public at the proper time,” he said.
Asked whether the government would protest the latest Chinese incursion into Philippine territory, Valte said “that is something that would have to be considered by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).”
But the DFA is not yet thinking of a protest. “We need to find out what really happened with the Chinese frigate in our territory,” DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said. “For now, we have instructed our embassy in Beijing to inform the Chinese foreign ministry that Philippine assets are willing to help the frigate get out of there.”
Hernandez said Manila would ask Beijing to explain why the frigate became stuck on the shoal.
Defense spokesperson Galvez said the defense department would ask the Chinese to explain why there were so many vessels in the area.
“We are seeking clarification from the Chinese side as to the purpose of those ships,” Galvez said. “We will not be the ones to confirm if this is a rescue operation. For all we know, they could be doing something else.”
Galvez declined to describe the vessels, saying he preferred the description to come from the Chinese government.
Galvez won’t say, however, if the defense department considers the presence of the Chinese warship at Hasa-Hasa an intrusion.
“We are still investigating and gathering details,” Galvez said. “As of this time, we are still gathering reports. I believe bad weather is hampering our monitoring.”
A military official who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter said “some consider it innocent passage,” possibly belying reports that the Chinese warship had been patrolling Philippine-claimed waters.
International maritime laws require the Philippines to come to the aid of the distressed vessel. On Saturday, Philippine naval forces readied assets to assist the Chinese in getting the frigate unstuck even without a call for help from China.
“Our assets are prepared in case there is a distress call,” said Commodore Rustom Peña, commander of the military’s Naval Forces West. “We will try to provide assistance. That will be our task there.”
The Sydney Morning Herald said the stricken frigate “has in the past been involved in aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area.”
The warship’s coming to grief in Philippine waters followed reports that China had installed a powerful radar on Subi Reef, an islet in the Kalayaan group of islands claimed by the Philippines.
Malacañang said on Friday that the government was verifying those reports. If confirmed, the Palace said it would consider that a “provocative action” by China.
Together with Vietnam, the Philippines pushed for a code of conduct at this week’s ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to prevent its territorial dispute with China from erupting into armed clashes in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine also sought to include its recent standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal in the traditional joint statement to be issued at the end of the meeting.
Cambodia blocks PH efforts
But Cambodia, the meeting’s host and an ally of China, blocked the Philippine effort, and the meeting ended on Friday without a joint statement, the first time Asean failed to do so in its 45-year history. With reports from Tina G. Santos and AP