WASHINGTON – The United States should support the Philippines in sending its ships back to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea because possession is nine-tenths of the law and the physical absence of government vessels gives the appearance that Manila has ceded its claim to the Chinese, The Heritage Foundation said.
The recent impasse between the Philippines and China over the shoal 124 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines is not over, said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the foundation.
“If allowed to stand, the current turn in the situation – that is, the Chinese left alone to represent its sovereignty claim in Scarborough (or Panatag Shoal as it is referred to by Manila) – is a defeat for both the Philippines and the US,” Lohman said.
On June 15, President Aquino pulled Filipino government vessels out of the area with what he thought was an agreement from the Chinese to do the same – an approaching storm providing face-saving cover for both sides.
Last week he repeated his call on China to pull out all its ships from Panatag – apparently to no avail.
Lohman said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings in Cambodia this week was a prime opportunity for the US to let China and Southeast Asia know that it will not allow this one-sided bargain to stand.
It was also an opportunity for Clinton to reinforce the red line that the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty draws around the Philippines, its armed forces, and public vessels.
Lohman said China militarized the dispute by announcing the establishment of “a normal, combat-ready patrol system” to patrol waters under Chinese jurisdiction – clearly implying the West Philippine Sea and specifically the waters around the Spratlys, raising the temperature to a new level. Clinton cannot go to the meetings in Cambodia pretending otherwise, he said.
The Philippines and China are currently locked in a territorial dispute not only in Panatag Shoal but also in the Spratly region, which is also being claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
The Spratly archipelago is a chain of islets, reefs, atolls and sand bars straddling the West Philippine Sea, which is believed to be rich in mineral and fuel deposits.
There are conflicting reports over whether the Philippines has requested the US to provide air patrols over the South China Sea.
If it has, there is nothing escalatory with such a request since the US is already working closely with the Philippines to upgrade its domain awareness capabilities with radars and the like, Lohman said.
If the Philippines requests more direct, immediate assistance in the form of US air patrols it should be provided, he added.
Bishops get update
Meanwhile, Roman Catholic bishops got first hand update from Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) commandant Vice Admiral Edmund Tan on developments in Panatag Shoal.
“We are concerned because it is part of our country, that is our security. We wanted to have a first hand information from him since they (PCG) are the ones there and (he) knows what is happening and what is the situation,” Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (CBCP-Nassa) chairman Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said.
The bishops relayed their invitation through Military Ordinariate Bishop Leopoldo Tumulak. Tan spoke before the bishops during their 105th Plenary Assembly last Sunday. Tan’s “factual report” reportedly lasted around 15 minutes.– With Evelyn Macairan