By TESSA JAMANDRE, VERA Files
It's now one against three in the ongoing standoff in Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea, with a lone Philippine Navy vessel up against three Chinese Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships whose presence, officials say, violates Philippine sovereignty.
China sent the 1,000-ton maritime surveillance ship Yuzheng 303, sighted eight nautical miles from the position of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, after it sent a marine surveillance aircraft at around 2 p.m. Wednesday (April 11).
When the Yuzheng 303 was approaching southwest of Scarborough, two CMS ships with bow numbers 75 and 84 that were already in the area steamed towards the approaching Chinese vessel.
Philippine military officials say the Chinese naval presence plus air cover was meant as a show of force. It was China's response to the April 10 incident when the Gregorio del Pilar apprehended Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough shoal, also called Panatag.
The vessels are part of China's Fisheries Law Enforcement (CFLE) command tasked to protect Chinese fishing vessels and personnel. It belongs to China's South China Sea Corps based on Guangzhou and transferred from the Chinese Navy in 2009.
The Yuzheng 303 and the marine surveillance aircraft arrived at Scarborough while Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Navy chief Vice Adm. Alexander Pama, and Philippine Coast Guard chief, Vice Adm. Edmund Castor Tan were conducting a media briefing on the standoff.
Del Rosario said there was a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty. He hoped to arrive at a diplomatic solution but said that if the Philippines is challenged, "it is prepared to secure its sovereignty."
Tan said the Coast Guard's search and rescue vessel is expected in the area Thursday (April 12). "Our role is just to be there to show our presence," he said.
Pama confirmed that all preparations are being undertaken including sending ships, but he refused to disclose the number and their positions. "We are ready but we have no intentions of telegraphing our intentions in the area," Pama said.
The Philippine Navy's cautious move is in accordance with President Aquino's guidance of "white to white, gray to gray." "White to white" means civilian ships are to deal only with civilian ships, in this case the Philippine Coast Guard to the Chinese Marine Surveillance. "Gray to gray" means navy to navy.
This directive sprung from the Reed Bank incident last year when China's marine surveillance ship warded off the Philippine commissioned seismic vessel Voyager. The President has said that Coast Guard will take the primary role of enforcing maritime laws.
In the meeting in Malacañang Tuesday evening, the primacy of the Coast Guard's role in the conduct of vessel search and seizure (VBSS) was reiterated.
The military's Northern Luzon Command, which has operational control of the area, took part in the meeting via teleconferencing. It said that following the issuance of Executive Order 57 creating the Coast Watch Council under the office of the Executive Secretary, it is primarily the Coast Guard that is mandated to enforce maritime laws and effect necessary arrests.
But it was also agreed upon that when the Navy is in an area for patrol, it can also enforce maritime laws such as VBSS, as they did in Scarborough shoal on April 10 when they found eight Chinese fishing boats with sizable quantities of endangered marine species, corals, live sharks and giant clams.
However, neither seizure of illegal cargoes nor arrest of the Chinese fishermen had been done.
Pama said they are still in consultation with concerned agencies of government on the issue of filing appropriate charges against the Chinese fishermen.
The Coast Watch station in the area has monitored foreign fishing vessels as early as three weeks ago but it was only on April 8 that a naval islander aircraft confirmed the sighting. The BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the country's lone modern naval patrol frigate acquired from the US last year, was on its way to Northern Luzon as part of the contingency measures for North Korea's rocket launch when it confirmed the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the Scarborough shoal.
Scarborough or Panatag shoal, just 124 nautical miles from Zambales, is not enclosed in the country's straight baseline. It is treated as a regime of islands of the country's Archipelagic Baselines submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).
The shoal is not new to incidents involving Chinese fishermen. On May 23, 1999, a Philippine Navy patrol craft sank a Chinese fishing vessel in a collision incident.
There had also been attempts by China to put markers on the shoal but these were subsequently blasted by the Philippines.
The Philippines on Wednesday lodged a diplomatic protest when Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing was summoned to the DFA. Likewise the Philippines Charge d'Affaires in Beijing was summoned by China's foreign ministry. A note verbale from China on the incident is to be expected, Del Rosario said.
Ma Keqing reiterated her country's position that Scarborough is an integral part of Chinese territory.
Yuzheng 303 is the same ship that escorted a Chinese fishing vessel that also figured in a standoff with Petrovietnam's commissioned exploration vessel in June last year. That incident in the waters disputed by Vietnam and China also triggered a diplomatic standoff after China cut off the cable lines of Vietnam's Viking 2 that got entangled with the anchor lines of Chinese fishing vessel 6226.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")