Defense chief: PH should stay mum on China’s blocking of Filipino-manned ship in Scarborough

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 2) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there is no need for the Philippines to comment on China’s shooing off of a Filipino-manned ship in Scarborough Shoal in September.

“I believe that the Philippines need not say anything more because the Liberian ship was able to continue its journey without being harassed or impeded,” Lorenzana told CNN Philippines on Sunday.

M/T Green Aura, a Liberian-flagged ship owned by Greek shipping company Aegean Shipping, was swarmed by at least four Chinese vessels on September 30, with one of the vessels identifying itself as a “Chinese Navy warship.” This is according to M/T Green Aura’s captain Manolo Ebora, who said the Chinese Navy warship told them to change course because the area is “Chinese territory.”

Photos of M/T Green Aura’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System sent to CNN Philippines by Ebora show at least four Chinese ships surrounding the oil tanker, with China Coast Guard 3302 getting nearest to it.

A back-and-forth between the Chinese vessel and Ebora over radio ensued, with the former insisting that the area is Chinese territory and the Filipino captain asserting he has the right to innocent passage.

Pinanindigan ko na hindi ‘yan sa inyo at saka wala namang nakalagay doon sa chart na bawal ako dumaan, so bakit ako pagbabawalan?” Ebora told CNN Philippines on Saturday.

[Translation: I insisted that the area is not theirs and nothing in the chart said I cannot pass through, so why am I being barred from passing?]

At one point, Ebora told the Chinese vessel that he “thinks” the area they are passing through is Philippine territory. Beijing’s ship later responded in Chinese that the area is Beijing’s.

Ebora said one of the ships also tried blocking M/T Green Aura’s passage, while two more ships criss-crossed the Liberian-flagged oil tanker.

The Chinese ship eventually relented and let M/T Green Aura pass, Ebora said, after which he returned the ship to its original course.

Ebora said he reported the incident to the Philippine Navy, but has not heard any updates from them since.

Sabi ko medyo na-bully ako. Kinakabahan ako kasi puro kami Pilipino dahil nakipagsagutan nga ako, at saka … sinagot-sagot kong, ‘Hindi ‘yan sa inyo eh! I think sa Pilipinas ‘yan,’” he said. “‘Yung Navy, sabi ni-report na nila. Kasi bumalik ‘yung video na ni-report na nila sa intel ng Philippine Navy, pero up until ngayon wala naman akong nabalitaan.”

[Translation: I said I was kind of bullied. I was afraid since we were all Filipinos and I talked back, telling them, ‘That’s not yours! I think that’s the Philippines’’ … The Navy said they reported it. The video came back and they reported it to the Philippine Navy’s intelligence, but up until now I haven’t heard anything.]

CNN Philippines is reaching out to the Philippine Navy and Aegean Shipping for comment.

The Foreign Affairs department, meanwhile, said it will “verify the facts of the incident then relevant offices will make the appropriate recommendations.”

China and the Philippines have overlapping territorial claims in an area of the South China Sea which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

Included in these areas is Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines controlled until 2013 when Manila’s ships pulled out following a Washington-brokered deal with China to break up a standoff with Beijing in the area.

The agreement should have seen both Manila and Beijing’s ship withdrawing from Scarborough, but Beijing remained and has since controlled the area.

Beijing’s territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea largely rests on its supposedly historical nine-dash line, which the Hague-based international tribunal established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has nullified in a historic award in 2013.

China, despite being a party to UNCLOS, still ignores the award to this day and refused to budge from its position even after President Rodrigo Duterte finally raised it with Chinese President Xi Jinping in August.

Duterte said he told Xi he was not satisfied with his response, but would no longer press on the issue, considering that the Chinese leader was “under stress” because of the Hong Kong protests.

‘PH can protest’

Despite Lorenzana wanting the Philippines to keep mum about the incident, international relations experts Lucio Pitlo and Robin Garcia told CNN Philippines that Manila can raise it with Beijing and even lodge a diplomatic protest.

“If the attempt to block transit or passage was established, appropriate actions can be taken, ranging from summoning the Chinese Embassy in Manila for an explanation, raising the matter in official bilateral channels or even filing a diplomatic protest depending on the circumstances of the case,” Pitlo said.

He added that the Philippines can raise the issue with China if it found cause that Chinese government vessels attempted to restrict navigational rights for commercial traffic in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Panatag Shoal lies 118 nautical miles west of Zambales province and is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile EEZ.

For Garcia, Manila should “forcefully” raise the incident at its next consultation meeting on the South China Sea with Beijing.

“Why do these incidents happen, and that while we may be open to some sort of compromise, we should not allow this from happening,” he said.

Pitlo and Garcia added that the reported presence of a Chinese warship in Philippine waters is a cause for concern.

“Previous incidents featured confrontations from Chinese fishermen who may or may not be representatives of the Chinese state. This incident is clear: a Chinese naval ship representing the Chinese government,” Garcia said.

He also said that the Philippines is “negotiating with miscalculated fear” as China has either dropped or relented to the demands of other claimants in many of its territorial disputes since 1949.

This is not the first time that a Chinese warship was spotted in Philippine waters. At least nine Chinese warships have sailed in Philippine waters since February, with some of these ships failing to inform local authorities or even deliberately turning off their navigation systems to evade detection.

Manila has protested their presence several times.

Show of concern

M/T Green Aura had been at sea for four days and was heading to Longkou, China from Nong Yao, Thailand when Ebora decided to steer off course and moved into Scarborough Shoal, known locally as Panatag Shoal, supposedly to verify the presence of Chinese there.

Ebora, a Philippine Navy reservist, said he wanted to show his concern for China’s incursions into Philippine waters.

Gusto ko lang dikitan ‘yung Scarborough para alam ko ‘yung sitwasyon doon kasi nababalitaan ko na nandoon ‘yung mga presence ng [Chinese] Navy na kinakamkam ‘yung mga isla,” he said.

[Translation: I just want to get close to Scarborough so I know the situation there because I got word of the presence of Chinese Navy there that have been claiming islands.]

But Pitlo said Ebora’s narration of events raises some questions.

“If it was a commercial vessel from Thailand bound to China, is passing by Scarborough Shoal the most expeditious route to take? Where did he get the report and should he, as captain of a foreign commercial vessel, be doing the verification in the first place? Should he not have contacted Philippine Coast Guard or Philippine Navy to do that since that is their mandate?” Pitlo said.

But Ebora said he can pass through any sea route, citing the right to innocent passage.

Bakit ako ipagbabawal? Kahit saan ako dumaan, kahit sa north o sa south, wala dapat magbawal sa akin kasi commercial vessel naman ako,” he said.

[Translation: Why would I not be allowed to pass? I should be able to pass through anywhere — either in the north or in the south — no one should bar me because I am manning a commercial vessel.]

He added, “Medyo masakit sa akin kasi nabanggit ko nga roon, sariling bahay mo, tataboy ka, sarili mong pagkain para sa mangingisda, kinukuha ng iba. Tapos ‘yung sarili mong teritoryo, ‘di ka padaanin.

[Translation: It hurts me a bit, like I said, you will be shooed away from your own house, your own food for fishermen would be taken away by someone else. And you won’t even be allowed to pass in your own territory.]

CNN Philippines’ Marjolee Carpio, Rex Remitio and Tress Reyes contributed to this report.