2 Coast Guard ships ready to guard Panatag Shoal on gov’t go-signal
MANILA, Philippines — Not a single Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel has been deployed to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) since PCG ships and their Chinese counterparts faced off in the West Philippine Sea rock formation for two weeks in mid-2012.
But Commander Armand Balilo, PCG spokesperson and chief of the public affairs office, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Monday, that at least two Coast Guard ships—the search-and-rescue vessel BRP Corregidor (001) and the buoy tender BRP San Juan (AE-391)—were “on standby” at the PCG headquarters in Port Area, Manila and could be sent to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) rock formation “if ordered by the higher-ups.”
Balilo was referring to “Malacañang through the DOTC,” not the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, tasked by the government to oversee security in the West Philippine Sea.
The 540-ton Corregidor is 56 meters long, has a cruising speed of 26 knots and a range of more than 1,000 nautical miles.
Built by the Australian shipbuilding firm Tenix, the multi-role vessel was commissioned by the PCG in June 2002.
In November, it was one of several PCG vessels that ferried relief goods to Eastern Visayas provinces ravaged by Super Typhoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan).
The 730-ton San Juan, nearly 57 meters long, was built by Niigata Engineering, a Japanese shipbuilding company. It runs at a slow 12 knots but has a cruising range of over 2,000 nautical miles. The ship was commissioned in February 1998 by the agency.
Balilo said “any ship deployment to Panatag Shoal would be done in a less provocative manner.”
Like AFP top officials, Balilo said they woud not want any confrontation with the Chinese Coast Guard.
He noted that as a matter of policy, the government would like to resolve the dispute over Panatag, which Manila also calls Bajo de Masinloc, through peaceful means and through international arbitration.
Balilo did not comment on reports that China’s Coast Guard fired water cannons at Filipino fishermen on Jan. 27 to drive them away from the shoal, a rich fishing ground off Zambales province.
A senior military official in charge of monitoring disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea said the Chinese vessels used water cannons only to scare the Filipino fishermen off the shoal, adding that the fishermen were not actually hit by the spray.
The incident appeared to be an isolated one, and no other acts of intimidation have been reported by Filipino fishermen, according to the official, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak to the media.
In mid-2012, Manila broke the standoff with Beijing by calling back its vessels from Panatag Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, as a storm approached.
China, however, did not recall its ships from the shoal, which it refers to as Huangyan Island. Instead, it cordoned off the area and stationed Coast Guard vessels there, effectively seizing the shoal after the storm.
With nothing to match Beijing’s firepower, the Philippines took the territorial dispute to the United Nations for arbitration in January 2013.
Last week, an undisclosed number of Filipino fishermen reportedly sailed back to the shoal, braving harassment from Chinese coast guard vessels to eke out a living.
The PCG detachment in Masinloc, Zambales, has advised fishermen to steer clear of the shoal to avoid an encounter with their Chinese counterparts. But fishermen ignored the warnings, noting that fishing is their only source of livelihood.
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