China frigate leaves shoal; Palace happy
The government will not protest what could have been an accidental incursion of a Chinese warship into Philippine territory last week, but it will investigate how it happened.
The People’s Liberation Army’s Missile Frigate No. 560 ran aground on Hasa-Hasa Shoal (international name: Half Moon Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), 111 kilometers west of Palawan, on Wednesday night.
A Chinese salvage party refloated the 103.2-meter, 1,425-ton, Jianghu-class frigate early Sunday, and the vessel headed back home, with light damage but with none of its crew injured.
Philippine Navy and Coast Guard rescue vessels had been standing by in the area, waiting for a call for assistance from the Chinese rescue party.
International maritime laws require the Philippines to come to the aid of the stranded warship, and the government authorized assistance.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila said the rescue party extricated the frigate from the shoal at around 5 a.m. Sunday.
Citing a report from the Chinese defense ministry, embassy spokesperson Zhang Hua said the frigate’s stern suffered light damage, but “all personnel aboard are safe.” He said preparations for the frigate’s return trip to its undisclosed home port were being organized.
Zhang said the incident caused no maritime pollution.
The Philippine military’s Western Command confirmed the Chinese party’s departure from Hasa-Hasa Shoal Sunday.
“We have confirmed that they were moving away from the shoal and that they look like a fleet of six or seven vessels with two warships providing escort,” said Colonel Neil Estrella, Western Command spokesperson.
Malacañang was “happy” about the frigate’s departure, according to deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte.
Speaking on state-run radio Sunday, Valte said the government would not bring a diplomatic protest. But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) would “pursue its own investigation” to find out “why the vessel ran aground in the area,” she said.
Beijing said its vessel had been on a routine patrol.
Valte said the Chinese refloated the frigate without Philippine assistance. “While we were ready to render assistance, we did not receive any request,” she said.
The DFA issued a brief statement Sunday, saying it was “glad” the Chinese managed to extricate their stranded frigate from Hasa-Hasa Shoal.
It confirmed that the warship, which was armed with Styx missiles, was “on its way out of our exclusive economic zone and continental shelf and [is on its way] back to China.”
The top Navy official of the Western Command in Palawan said he believed the Chinese warship did not deliberately intrude into Philippine waters.
Comm. Rustom Peña, commander of Naval Forces West, said he believed the frigate was passing by the area when it made a navigational mistake.
“It was likely a human error,” Peña said. “Probably they made a mistake in their navigation, they did not see the [shallows].”
He said the area is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. “Occasionally we see those ships there and our ships are also very much seen there. International ships also pass by. So practically a lot of ships pass by the area.”
Peña did not describe the Chinese salvage operation, and confirmed that the Chinese did not ask for help. “We offered [help],” he said, “but they did not ask for help.”
The Western Command is investigating a report of firing near Hasa-Hasa Shoal before the Chinese frigate ran aground there Wednesday night.
The firing was reported to the Western Command by the skipper of FV Maricel, a commercial fishing vessel based in Palawan.
“We are only now looking into that report because it just got in,” Colonel Estrella said.
He said the fishing vessel was near Hasa-Hasa Shoal when its crew heard two warning shots.
“They said that after they heard the gunfire, they saw through their binoculars two foreign-looking armed vessels, but they could not identify their nationality and they failed to make contact with them using the marine band radio,” Estrella said.
Estrella said the military would investigate to see whether the warning shots came from vessels in the Chinese salvage party.
Asked whether the Western Command was able to track the Chinese rescue party as it moved into Philippine territory on Friday to assist the stricken frigate, Estrella said the military did not monitor such movements.
“We don’t know yet where they came from exactly, but the area is too far from their known naval bases to allow them to quickly assemble such a rescue party which included even a slow moving tugboat,” Estrella said.
Asked whether the rescue party might have come from Mischief Reef, which is the nearest major Chinese fortification to Hasa-Hasa Shoal, Estrella said Western Command had not monitored the presence of a large number of Chinese war vessels there.
“It’s speculative at this point,” Estrella said. “What we know is that area is a busy highway for Chinese boats lately.” With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada and Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila; Redempto Anda, Inquirer Southern Luzon
Originally posted: 6:08 pm | Sunday, July 15th, 2012
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