WATCH | Malacañang pulls hands off US-China row at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal

January 22, 2018 - 9:46 AM
USS Hopper sailing at sea. (Inset) Chinese air patrol with Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in background. REUTERS photographs

Malacañang over the weekend kept a hands-off stance in the wake of the recent territorial spat between China and the United States (Panatag) Scarborough Shoal.

“The Philippines’ claim over Scarborough Shoal [Panatag Shoal] is recognized under our constitutional law and international law. We do not wish to be part of a US-China intramural. The United States can take care of its own interest,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper, a U.S. Navy destroyer, sailed near the disputed shoal claimed by China in the South China Sea this week, U.S. officials said on Saturday, and Beijing vowed to take “necessary measures” to protect its sovereignty.

USS Hopper sailing at sea.
Chinese air patrol over vicinity of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, in background. REUTERS

China’s foreign ministry said the Hopper missile destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of Huangyan Island, which is also known as Panatag, or Scarborough, Shoal and subject to a rival claim by the Philippines.

PH Baselines Law
In 2009, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo enacted the Philippine Baselines Law of 2009 (RA 9522). The new law classified the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal as a regime of islands under the Republic of the Philippines.

In 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) stated the Philippine position on Bajo de Masinloc and the waters within its vicinity, asserting that the country exercised both effective occupation and effective jurisdiction over the shoal, which it terms Bajo de Masinloc, since its independence.

It claimed to have erected flags in some islands and a lighthouse which it reported to the International Maritime Organization.

Landsat overhead view of Panatag (Scarborough Shoal).

It also asserted that the Philippine and US Naval Forces have used it as impact range and that its Department of Environment and Natural Resources has conducted scientific, topographic and marine studies in the shoal, while Filipino fishermen regularly use it as fishing ground and have always considered it their own.

UN arbitration
On 12 July 2016 the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal agreed unanimously with the Philippine territorial claim over the dispute with China.

In its award, it concluded that there is no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources, hence there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the area within the nine-dash line.

The tribunal also judged that the PRC had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment”, and that it had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its Exclusive Economic Zone by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration by, for example, restricting the traditional fishing rights of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal.

China rejected the ruling, calling it “ill-founded””. PRC president Xi Jinping insisted that “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way”.

Click and watch this Reuters file video below. Reuters Philippines Bureau Chief Martin Petty talks about his team’s recent trip to the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, where relations between China and the Philippines appear warmer than they have in years, as Rodrigo Duterte forges closer links with Beijing, while distancing himself from Washington:

Innocent passage
It was the latest U.S. naval operation challenging extensive Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and came even as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration seeks Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

USS Hopper sailing at sea. (Inset) Chinese air patrol with Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in background. REUTERS photographs

Two U.S. officials confirmed that the USS Hopper had sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the patrol was in line with international law and was an “innocent passage,” in which a warship effectively recognizes a territorial sea by crossing it quickly, without stopping.

Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.

The U.S. military says it carries out “freedom of navigation” operations throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations.

Routine freedom of navigation
The Pentagon did not directly comment on the latest patrol but said such operations are routine.

“All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said.

The U.S. military has placed countering China and Russia at the center of a new national defense strategy unveiled on Friday.

China criticized the strategy, saying Beijing sought “global partnership, not global dominance.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the USS Hopper violated China’s sovereignty and security interests and threatened the safety of Chinese vessels and personnel.

Lu said the Chinese navy ordered the vessel to withdraw after determining its identity.

The United States has criticized China for constructing islands and military installations in the South China Sea, saying they could be used to restrict free movement in a critical global trade route.

Lu said China “firmly opposes” efforts to use freedom of navigation as an excuse to hurt its sovereignty and urged the United States to “correct its mistakes.” (With a report from Reuters)