Malacañang: Filipino-manned Liberian tanker allegedly harassed by Chinese is not our concern

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 3) — Malacañang is keeping its hands off China’s alleged blocking of a Filipino-manned oil tanker in Scarborough Shoal (known locally as Panatag Shoal), leaving the issue to Liberia — the country where the vessel is registered.

“For as long as they do not touch the Philippine ship or vessel, it will be the concern of that country that carries the flag of that particular vessel,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said on Saturday at the sidelines of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Summits in Thailand.

Panelo maintained that the Philippines has nothing to do with the incident, even if a Chinese vessel which introduced itself to the Filipino crew of M/T Green Aura as a “Chinese Navy warship” insisted that Scarborough Shoal is Chinese territory.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson did not categorically answer a question on whether the Philippines would file a diplomatic protest over the blocking of the Liberian-flagged ship, but only said, “Anyway, it does not concern us because it is not a Philippine vessel.”

According to two experts, however, the Philippines should take action — if only to uphold the right to innocent passage at sea.

"Ang [The] recourse ng Philippines, of course, there is a diplomatic protest to preserve its rights under international law ... to defend international law itself, the principle that all states should allow innocent passage in the territorial sea," maritime expert Jay Batongbacal told CNN Philippines.

He added, "Even though there's no damage in the end and even though the vessel did reach the destination, the point is there was an interference in its navigation. If you don't stand up for that particular point, baka [maybe] in the future, dumami pa 'yung [there can be more] instances where they will interfere in the navigation and in the future it might be more serious."

Defense analyst Jose Custodio also said that the Philippines should respond, as China seems to be "upping the ante" in Scarborough Shoal.

"You have a warship now. The threat that China's projecting the intimidating presence now," Custodio told CNN Philippines. "So all the more reason that the Philippine government, the Duterte administration should face this challenge to our territory becuse wala ka nang choice eh [you don't have any other choice.]"

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the incident should not be “blown out of proportion or sensationalized,” as M/T Green Aura was able to pass through, even after being challenged by Chinese vessels.

Lorenzana has said that an official report on the alleged blocking of M/T Green Aura has been forwarded to the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea.

‘Respect int’l law’

The Defense chief also stressed that China must respect international law — a call backed by Panelo.

Scarborough Shoal — also known as Panatag Shoal — is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and was recognized as a common traditional fishing ground under a 2016 award by a Hague-based arbitral tribunal created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Liberian-flagged tanker M/T Green Aura was shooed away last September 30 by a Chinese vessel which identified itself as a “Chinese Navy warship” when its captain, Manolo Ebora, decided to steer his ship off course and into Scarborough Shoal to verify Chinese presence there.

Ebora, who is a Philippine Navy reservist, insisted that he can pass through the area, citing the right to innocent passage, but the “Chinese Navy” insisted that they change course as the area is “Chinese territory.”

Under international maritime law, a foreign ship has a right to innocent passage in a country's territorial waters as long as it does not affect the peace, good order or security of the country.

Ebora, however, ignored the order and M/T Green Aura was eventually let through after being criss-crossed by two Chinese ships, while another temporarily blocked their way. Once Ebora got through the Chinese ships, he said he returned M/T Green Aura to its original route.

The Philippines and China have overlapping territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.

Among the features claimed by both countries is Panatag Shoal, which the Philippines lost to China in 2013, following a standoff and a pullout of Manila’s ships under a deal brokered by Washington. Beijing’s ships should have pulled out too, but they defied the deal and stayed on.

China’s claims, however, were nullified by the 2016 arbitral award, which found that its nine-dash line that encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea has no basis in law. Beijing still refuses to acknowledge the ruling to this day.

At the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit Plenary in Thailand on Saturday, President Rodrigo Duterte urged regional and global leaders to maintain a peaceful environment by showing “self-restraint” while negotiating to resolve the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Panelo said all countries present at the regional meet expressed the need to exercise self-restraint.

“All countries have asked everyone to observe self-restraint, to avoid any activity that would lead to any more friction that would lead armed hostilities between and among countries in the region,” he said.

CNN Philippines Senior Correspondent David Santos contributed to this report.