MANILA, Philippines - China is enhancing its presence in the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef to pressure the Philippines to remove its grounded ship in nearby Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, a defense expert said Monday.
Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Association of Chinese Studies, confirmed that Panganiban Reef off Palawan has been transformed by China into an active naval detachment and military garrison.
“China has recently increased their naval presence in the Mischief Reef because the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy wants the Philippines to remove our grounded ship in the Ayungin Shoal,” Banlaoi told The STAR.
“China’s increased maritime activities in Mischief Reef can pressure the Philippines but they do not provide a compelling reason for the Philippines to remove the grounded ship in Ayungin Shoal. In fact, it even encourages the Philippines to level up our defenses there,” he added.
Banlaoi said China could not compel the Philippines to remove its grounded ship unless ordered by the international court or mutually agreed upon by both countries.
The BRP Sierra Madre, which was intentionally grounded in 1999, serves as a Navy outpost and symbolizes the country’s ownership of Ayungin Shoal, which is being claimed by China.
Banlaoi stressed the increased military activities in the West Philippine Sea would not help settle territorial disputes.
“They will just escalate the tensions and complicate the security situation in the disputed waters. Demilitarization is still the best option to deescalate the complex nature of conflicts in the South China Sea,” he said.
Located about 70 nautical miles from Palawan, Panganiban Reef has been occupied by China since 1995.
China initially built modest structures on stilts at the reef, supposedly to provide shelter for fishermen, but these were later transformed into a military garrison with powerful radars.
Among the structures reportedly built on the reef were a windmill, solar panels, a concrete platform suitable for helipad and a basketball court.
“All structures and facilities in all features currently occupied by claimants are considered naval detachments or a ‘mini naval base’ in a loose sense,” Banlaoi said.
China claims virtually the entire West Philippine Sea and South China Sea while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
Last May, China expressed concern that the Philippines might put up additional structures in Ayungin Shoal, an area within Manila’s continental shelf.
The Philippine government, however, said it has no plan to do so and that it was just sending ships in the shoal to replenish the supplies of soldiers securing the area.
China also has presence in Subi Reef, where it has put up a three-story facility with gun emplacements, a helicopter landing pad, a radar dome, and lighthouse, and in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales where it is conducting illegal patrols.
The Philippines has filed a case against China’s “excessive” and “exaggerated” territorial claims before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
China asserts that virtually all of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is its historical territory, even the waters close to the coasts of other Asian countries.
The Philippines and Vietnam, on the other hand, will hold its 7th Meeting of the Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) on Thursday in Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario will lead the Philippine delegation while Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh will head the Vietnamese delegation.
Among the issues to be discussed by the Philippines and Vietnam, both claimants in the South China Sea, are cooperative initiatives in defense and security, maritime and ocean cooperation, trade and investments, and agriculture.
The meeting will also review the implementation of the Philippines-Vietnam Action Plan, a framework document which lists the initiatives to be implemented by both countries for the period 2011-2016.
The last round of the JCBC meeting was hosted by Vietnam in 2011.
The JCBC is a regular consultation mechanism between the foreign ministries of the two countries to discuss bilateral and regional issues of mutual concern. – With Pia Lee-Brago