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Panatag Shoal

China has de facto control over Panatag Shoal, says former DFA senior official

October 6, 2012 11:20am
Long used as a shelter by Filipino fishermen but subject to conflicting claims by both the Philippines and China, the hotly disputed Panatag Shoal is now under the de facto control of China, according to a former Philippine senior foreign affairs official.

“Remember, China roped off the area and no fishermen and no vessels from the Philippines can go in,” said former foreign affairs undersecretary Lauro Baja Jr. He spoke Friday at a University of the Philippines forum. Baja also served as former Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

The Philippine government will not officially admit that it has lost control of the Panatag Shoal, known internationally as Scarborough Shoal. But since its unilateral withdrawal of its ships last June, armed Chinese ships have blocked access to the area. China calls this cluster of rocks surrounding a protected lagoon Huangyan Island.

Philippine foreign affairs officials claim that China violated an agreement brokered by the United States that called for the simultaneous withdrawal of both Philippine and Chinese ships that had been locked in a tense stand-off at the shoal since April. China has denied that there was any such agreement.

Trillanes' back-channel talks

After Philippine ships withdrew leaving China the shoal's sole occupant, President Aquino reportedly got irritated with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, and tapped Senator Antonio Trillanes to serve as a back-channel negotiator with Chinese senior officials, eventually triggering a very public blow-up at the Senate in September involving Trillanes and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.

Baja called for stronger action to restore the Philippines' presence in the shoal, which is less than 200 kilometers west of Subic Bay.

“We must maintain some semblance of our sovereign rights [in the area],” he said, speaking at the UP forum on the topic “Challenges to Philippine Foreign Relations.” 

Dispute over shoal
 
The dispute between the Philippines and China over the shoal started last April when Manila authorities caught Chinese fishermen poaching in Panatag waters. Before the Philippine Navy could make an arrest, Chinese ships blocked their path.
 
This maritime dispute has so soured relations between the two countries that it has come to affect economic relations, as when Philippines banana exports were rejected by China and Chinese tourists canceled their scheduled trips to the country.
 
The dispute has also tainted relations within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The organization failed to issue a joint statement after its July meeting, allegedly because of Chinese influence.
 
Bilateral code of conduct with China

Baja suggested that the Philippines explore a bilateral code of conduct with China over territorial issues in the Panatag Shoal. This should ease tensions between the two countries which are deputing ownership over the area. 
 
However, Baja said that aside from the bilateral talks, a multilateral agreement should also be in place for claims in the larger West Philippine Sea.
 
Baja recommended that coastal states such as the Philippines and China must cooperate and encourage the sharing of resources through joint development arrangements.
 
But even if these agreements and collaborations can be effected, Baja said, “It is prudent to verify [their intentions].”

Toughest challenge in foreign relations
 
“The dispute in the West Philippine Sea [WPS] is the toughest challenge in foreign relations, diplomacy and foreign policy. We need a well thought-out, short to long-term foreign policy in the West Philippine Sea,” said Baja.
 
An independent group of former government officials with long experience in maritime issues, including Baja himself, had studied what form this national policy in managing the maritime and territorial dispute in the WPS would be.
 
Their findings are contained in a “white paper”, which was presented in the forum and was submitted to the President last month. 
 
The paper contained policy suggestions such as:
 
•      Strengthening institutions managing the disputes
•      Developing a comprehensive, long-term program for international legal action on the issue
•      Bilateral and multilateral approaches in diplomacy pertaining to the WPS, and
•      Undertaking programs that will inculcate archipelagic consciousness and identity of the    
       Philippines and the Filipinos as a maritime nation.
 
Back channeling
 
Baja also sought to explain that back channeling methods of negotiation have been an accepted practice in diplomacy, although he noted that the back channel negotiations should be done “with finesse, with circumspection and with coordination between the back and the front channels.”
 
“Otherwise, you are playing into the hands of the other side,” said Baja.
 
That coordination apparently did not happen between Trillanes and DFA's Del Rosario. They had a public spat about Trillanes' efforts, where the senator revealed that President Aquino had assigned to him the back-channeling role. Aquino was forced to figuratively gag the two public officials.  

Then, during a debate on the Senate floor in September that turned testy, Enrile disclosed confidential notes written by Ambassador to Beijing Sonia Brady that quoted Trillanes as privately accusing Del Rosario of treason.
 
“Speaking with one voice is necessary. We talk too much [about] the West Philippine Sea, especially about the Panatag Shoal,” said Baja regretfully. — DVM/HS, GMA News
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