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PHL protests Chinese harassment in Panatag Shoal

(Updated 5:29 p.m.) The Philippines on Tuesday filed a diplomatic protest against China over several cases of harassment of Filipino fishermen, including last month’s water cannon attack, by Chinese authorities in Manila-claimed Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal off the South China Sea.

This came after President Benigno Aquino III demanded an explanation from China over a report that its coast guard had fired water cannon at Filipino fishermen at the disputed shoal.

"The first step would be a diplomatic message... directed at the People's Republic of China to ask them to explain what this incident was all about, what their intentions are," Aquino told reporters, when asked whether a formal protest would be lodged.

China’s acting ambassador Sun Xiangyang was summoned by the Department of Foreign Affairs Tuesday morning to hand over a note verbale or diplomatic note “vehemently protesting” nine incidents of harassment against Filipino fishermen at the shoal since last year and another incident on January 27, 2014,  when Chinese government vessels fired water cannons on two Filipino fishing vessels within Panatag’s vicinity.

“The department strongly protests the acts of harassment and the manner by which there were committed by China to forcefully drive away Philippine fishing vessels from Bajo de Masinloc,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said, referring to Scarborough shoal’s local name.

Hernandez maintained the shoal “is an integral part of the Philippines and over which the Philippines exercises sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” adding  "Philippine fishing vessels have been routinely, continuously, and peacefully and sustainably fishing” in the area.  

But China rejected Manila’s protest, insisting it has “indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters” including Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
“Chinese government vessels are conducting regular patrols within China's jurisdiction. The Chinese side does not accept the so-called 'protest' by the Philippine side,” embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said in a statement.
“We urge the Philippine side to work with the Chinese side to resolve differences through bilateral consultations and negotiations,” Zhang said. 

At the DFA briefing, Hernandez cited two separate incidents wherein a Philippine fishing boat seeking shelter inside the shoal was driven away by Chinese maritime vessels during inclement weather last year. Then on January 27, Chinese vessels fired water cannons on two fishing vessels that were 30 to 40 yards from the shoal when they were attacked, Hernandez said.

“The Chinese vessels continuously blew its horn and doused the Philippine vessels with water cannons for several minutes,” he said, adding at the time of the incident, there were 14 other Philippine fishing vessels in the area.

Hernandez explained it took a while for the Philippine government to file a protest as it needs “to collect more details and information before making the decision on what course of action we have to undertake in this issue.”

China seized control of the shoal—a U-shaped rock formation with a sprawling lagoon teeming with rich maritime resources—in 2012 following a maritime standoff with Philippine authorities.

Philippine officials insisted the shoal, which is facing the South China Sea, is within the country’s exclusive economic zone as mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – an agreement signed by 163 nations, including China.

Scarborough, located 124 nautical miles from Masinloc town in Zambales and 472 nautical miles from China’s nearest coastal province of Hainan, is called Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc by the Philippines and referred to as Huangyan Island by the Chinese.

2012 standoff

Manila and Beijing figured in a dangerous standoff in the area 2012. The stalemate temporarily ended when President Benigno Aquino III ordered Philippine vessels facing off with Chinese ships to withdraw due to bad weather.

China never left the area and even roped off the entrance to the shoal to prevent Filipino fishermen access and shelter to its vast lagoon.

Despite the incident, Hernandez said the Philippine government will not prohibit Filipino fishermen from going to the shoal.

“Our fishermen have to right to pursue their livelihood in Bajo de Masinloc which is an integral part of the Philippine territory over which the PHL exercises sovereignty, sovereign right and jurisdiction,” he said.

West Philippine Sea

Beijing claims the South China Sea nearly in its entirety, citing historical entitlements as the basis for its huge claim.

The Philippine government has adopted the name West Philippine Sea for parts of the South China Sea that falls within its territory.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan  have competing claims over the sea - a strategic waterway where a bulk of the world's trade pass and believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. Analysts feared the rivalling claims could spark a military conflict in the region.

Manila challenged China’s massive claim in January last year before a United Nations-linked arbitral tribunal, where a resolution is pending.

China notified the tribunal that it will not participate in the legal proceedings, saying Manila’s case was legally infirm and carried unacceptable allegations.

Transfer of jurisdiction

Meanwhile, Armed Forces public affairs head Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said jurisdiction over Panatag Shoal has been transferred to the military's Western Command from the North Luzon Command.

“This is so to enhance our external defense capabilities which is now being concentrated at the Western Command and unity of effort and unity of command so that our external defense efforts will just be under one commander and that is the western command commander,” he said.

The decision was signed by Armed Forces chief General Emmanuel Bautista last week, Zagala said, noting that disputes over marine boundaries in Southeast Asia were taken into consideration when the decision was made.

“We want to enhance our external defense capabilities and in order to do that it should be commanded by one commander," he added.

Zagala also said last month's water cannon attack at Panatag Shoal does not merit a response from the military. — with Agence France-Presse and Amanda Fernandez/KBK/RSJ, GMA News