[PHOTO - Photo released by China’s official Xinhua news agency shows a Chinese fishing vessel sailing near Yongshu Reef in the Spratly Islands last Sunday.]

MANILA, JULY 18, 2012 (PHILSTAR) By Alexis Romero - The military is ready to assist the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in enforcing the country's maritime laws, but will only do so if ordered by higher authorities.

Armed Forces spokesman Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr. stressed Tuesday that the PCG is the agency tasked to ensure that the country’s laws are being followed.

“The maritime laws there (in the West Philippine Sea) are being enforced by the Philippine Coast Guard and whenever told to do so, we will be in the area,” Burgos said in a press briefing.

“But as far as our constitutional mandate to protect the people and the state, we will continue to do that,” he added.

Burgos was asked to react to reports that China has sent a big fleet of fishing vessels at the disputed Spratly Islands.

Burgos said they would only comply with the directives issued to them by higher authorities.

“We are implementers. We just execute whatever order is handed down to us,” Burgos said.

“Coordination between the Philippine Coast Guard and the Armed Forces of the Philippines is very critical,” he added.

On Sunday, a huge fleet of Chinese fishing vessels arrived at the contested parts of the West Philippine Sea, in what observers view as an effort to assert Beijing’s claim over the area.

China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua said the fleet of 30 fishing vessels from Hainan province arrived near Yongshu Reef on Monday afternoon.

The fleet reportedly includes a 3,000 ton supply ship and a patrol vessel and is said to be the largest ever launched from the province.

The fishing expedition in the area will last for five to 10 days, reports said.

The arrival of the fishing fleet in the Spratlys came on the same day a Chinese warship that ran aground on a shoal off Palawan was successfully refloated after being assisted by vessels sent by Beijing.

The grounded ship - a Jianghu-class, Chinese guided-missile frigate – was removed from the Hasa Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal on Sunday and left the area on the same day.

Hasa Hasa Shoal, where the Chinese warship got stuck, is located about 60 nautical miles off Rizal town in Palawan.

The warship got stuck on the shoal last July 11 while conducting a routine patrol.

The Philippine media knew about the incident through a report released by Australian paper Sydney Morning Herald last Friday.

Philippine officials did not inform the public about the incident before the Sydney Morning Herald report was published.

The warship reportedly pinned itself to a reef at Hasa Hasa Shoal, on the southeastern edge of the hotly-contested Spratlys Islands.

The ship got stuck within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, as determined by exclusive economic zone as provided by international law. – Alexis Romero

Phl to China: Stay out of our zone By Pia Lee-Brago and Aurea Calica (The Philippine Star) Updated July 17, 2012 12:00 AMComments (94)

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines yesterday told China not to intrude into its territory after a fleet of 30 Chinese fishing vessels arrived in the Spratly Islands on Sunday.

The large fleet of fishing vessels arrived on the same day that a Chinese frigate stranded in Hasa Hasa Shoal in the West Philippine Sea was extricated by Chinese authorities. Chinese officials said the frigate was heading back to China.

“The Chinese fishing vessels must not intrude in the EEZ of the Philippines. We require China to respect the sovereign rights of the Philippines over the resources within our EEZ,” Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said, referring to the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Hernandez said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has asked the Philippine Coast Guard to pinpoint the location of the Chinese fishing vessels “so that we can ascertain whether they are in our maritime domain.”

“If they intrude into our EEZ, we will file a protest,” Hernandez said.

“Those 30 fishing vessels should not go fishing in our EEZ and therefore the owners or the state which has jurisdiction over those vessels should have due regard to the rights and duties of the Philippines being a coastal state,” he told reporters.

China on Friday urged the Philippines “not to make trouble” in connection with the territorial dispute between the two countries.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario brought to the East Asia Summit and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial Meeting’s attention the issue on the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and explained a member’s aggressiveness on Philippine sovereignty over the area and Philippine sovereign rights over its EEZ.

But Beijing insisted that Panatag Shoal has always been part of the Chinese territory and is not a disputed island.

China instead urged the Philippines to face facts squarely and not make trouble.

Phl enjoying support

Malacañang, for its part, yesterday said the Philippines enjoys the support of the majority of ASEAN members on its position to seek peaceful, multilateral and rules-based approach to resolve the West Philippine Sea dispute despite the lack of a joint communiqué after the foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh due to the opposition of the chairman, Cambodia, a Chinese ally.

Del Rosario said the West Philippine Sea issue was discussed, particularly the standoff between the Philippines and China at Panatag Shoal, and should be included in the joint statement issued after every ASEAN meeting.

Cambodia, however, decided to strike it out and did not issue a joint communiqué.

Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said the Philippines was hoping that Cambodia would become “more supportive” of the need to have a multilateral solution to the dispute.

But he said there were no talks about President Aquino boycotting the next ASEAN summit in November.

Independent probe

The Philippines will independently investigate why a Chinese naval frigate ran aground close to Palawan while patrolling disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea but will not file a diplomatic protest yet.

The stranding occurred Wednesday in a shoal just 60 nautical miles off the town of Rizal in Palawan, well within the Philippines’ EEZ.

The shoal is part of the Spratly Islands – which the Chinese call Nansha – a string of atolls and islands straddling vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea and believed to be sitting atop vast mineral deposits.

After the ship got stuck, a fleet of some 30 vessels from China reportedly went to the disputed waters again, reports said.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the Philippines offered to assist in removing the Chinese ship and that an investigation was being done.

He said he was not aware if there was any communication from China to inform the Philippines about the presence of its ships in Philippine waters.

Asked whether the Philippines would ask why the Chinese ships were there, Lacierda said this was the reason behind the investigation mentioned by Del Rosario.

But he said there were no plans to file a diplomatic protest at the moment.

“Secretary Del Rosario believes it is not proper at this time,” Lacierda said.

“We would have yet to first see the results of the investigation that we will be conducting on our own… We have not received any reason why, how that frigate happened to be there. But, again, we will be investigating,” he said.

“We don’t know yet. So I cannot give you or hazard a reason why the frigate was there. That will be investigated,” Lacierda further said.

Missile-firing vessel

A security official, who asked not to be named, said the Chinese warship that ran aground at Hasa Hasa Shoal was among the missile-firing vessels stationed at Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef) and is not new to the hotly contested West Philippine Sea.

“All the six vessels – a gunboat, four surveillance ships and a bigger frigate – that rushed to Hasa Hasa Shoal to salvage their ill-fated missile-guided frigate could have come from Mischief Reef which, for years of occupation, has become the center of China’s naval operations in the Spratly region,” the official said.

With missile launchers, Mischief Reef is host to several Chinese warships and is Beijing’s closest garrison to Hasa Hasa Shoal.

“Their ships even reached Hasa Hasa Shoal earlier than our ships because they were already actually very near the area,” the official further said.

He said that China’s Southern Fleet has also established bases in other areas in the Spratly region like the Subi Reef and Johnson Reef.

Corals damaged?

Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has sent divers to check if corals at Half Moon Shoal were damaged by the Chinese frigate.

“There are already three divers belonging to their Special Operations Group (SOG) in the area and we would be sending three more divers. They are checking if any of the corals were damaged,” PCG spokesman Lt. Commander Armand Balilo said yesterday.

Balilo clarified their diving mission was part of their agency’s basic function to protect the maritime environment and not in any way related to the sovereignty issues between the Philippines and China.

In fact, in the event that corals were damaged, the PCG would just file a report “for record purposes” and inform the DFA, it said.

He also clarified that while the Chinese warship was stuck at the shoal for five days, there were no traces of oil spill in the area.

Last Saturday, the PCG reportedly sent its BRP Romblon to the site where the Chinese ship ran aground to observe the situation there. The Romblon kept a two nautical mile-distance from the Jianghu-class, Chinese guided-missile frigate with bow no. 560.

But the Romblon had to leave the area in the afternoon due to bad weather.

When it returned around 11 a.m. Sunday, the Chinese ship was no longer there.

The PCG official added that when the PCG ship first arrived in the area, it was already carrying oil spill booms and was ready to respond to the situation had there been an oil spill.

Bilateral talks

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, said yesterday the Philippines should push for bilateral talks with China after it got no support from the ASEAN on the ongoing territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

Speaking at the Kapihan sa Diamond Hotel media forum, Lacson said it will be better if the Philippines and China will hold bilateral talks instead of engaging other countries on the issue of Panatag Shoal.

“If we involve a third country or other countries, many other interests come into play. Let’s not squander our opportunities and resources. Let’s think of our stomachs. Maybe we can set aside for the meantime the issue of sovereignty because I think China is only concerned with economic considerations,” Lacson said.

He said he was told by Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing during a recent dinner that they only want the Philippines and China to discuss the Panatag issue.

“Let’s not involve other countries because this might make matters worse,” he said.

“Do you think the US will work on interest of the Philippines ahead of their own interest? No way. In like manner, we’ll be very frank in saying let’s put our national interest first before the interest of other countries. And no country will advance the interest of another country ahead or on top of their own interests. So bringing in a third or fourth country or 10 more countries will not do us any good,” he said.

Lacson said the Philippines should instead consider a joint oil exploration in Panatag Shoal with China.

“We don’t have capital… I’m sure we will look for foreign partner to explore massive resources in Panatag, which is the no. 4 biggest source of natural gas,” Lacson said. – With Helen Flores, Evelyn Macairan, Jaime Laude

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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