MANILA, Philippines - Bad weather stalled the sending of air assets over the hotly contested Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Friday.
Gazmin said the Philippines has been sending aircraft to conduct aerial surveillance over the area, which is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“We’ve been doing that (sending of aircraft over the shoal)... But this has been stalled due to inclement weather,” Gazmin told reporters on the sidelines of a security symposium in Pasay City.
Gazmin did not elaborate but revealed Coast Guard and Navy aircraft had been taking turns in monitoring the area.
Navy chief Vice Adm. Alexander Pama said he is not aware as to whose aircraft would conduct aerial surveillance over the area.
Pama, however, said the Navy is ready to perform the task once ordered by higher authorities.
“Just in case the order comes to us, we are ready to send (air assets),” Pama said.
He added the Navy’s islander helicopters are capable of conducting maritime patrol.
Gazmin though refused to comment on the possible reaction of China to the conduct of surveillance by Philippine air assets.
“We’ll cross the bridge when (we get there),” he said.
Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Lauro Catalino de la Cruz, however, said there is nothing wrong in conducting aerial surveillance over the area.
“You will just take pictures. There is nothing wrong about it,” he said.
De la Cruz declined to elaborate further, saying the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is dealing with the issue.
“If the DFA has requirements, then if we have the resources, we will provide it,” De la Cruz said.
Panatag Shoal is located 124 nautical miles from the nearest base point in Zambales.
It is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is a signatory.
A standoff ensued on April 10 after Chinese maritime surveillance ships barred the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who had engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species.
The Philippines has protested the Chinese vessels’ action but China has insisted that it has sovereignty over the area.
Last week, President Aquino directed two Philippine ships to pull out of Panatag Shoal due to bad weather.
Ordered to return to port were a Coast Guard ship and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel that symbolized the country’s claim over the area.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said they would evaluate whether the ships would be sent back to the shoal once the weather improves.
The DFA had also claimed that China would also pull its ships but this was later denied by Beijing.
Beijing’s denial dashed hopes that the standoff, which triggered fresh tension in the West Philippine Sea, was nearing its end.
Aquino on Monday said the government is ready to send ships back to the shoal if Chinese vessels remain there.
The Defense department has expressed support for the return of Philippine vessels to the shoal, saying China could take advantage of their absence to boost its claim over the area.
“The Chinese are not leaving the area. We need to go back,” Gazmin said.