MANILA – A maritime law expert has had enough of Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo’s comments regarding the latest incident near the Scarborough shoal involving a Chinese “naval warship” harassing an all-Filipino crew of a foreign-flagged, foreign-owned oil tanker.
Panelo dismissed the incident as “not a concern” for the Philippines because it did not involve a Philippine vessel, during a press briefing in Nonthaburi, Thailand, at the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.
The oil tanker “Green Aura” carried a Liberian flag and is Greek-owned.
According to reports, it was headed for Longkou, China on September 30 when a Chinese vessel identifying itself as a naval warship demanded that it alter its course away from Scarborough or Panatag Shoal.
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal couldn’t disagree more with Panelo’s reaction.
“This is just so wrong on several levels. When will someone stop Panelo from speaking out of turn on matters of foreign policy?" he asked in a post on Twitter Monday.
Batongbacal said the Philippines should not stay silent in the face of China’s assertion of jurisdiction over Scarborough Shoal, which lies about 120 miles west of Subic Bay.
A 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling had declared Scarborough Shoal traditional fishing grounds, with China violating Filipino fishermen’s rights in restricting access to the area.
“Silence on China’s assertion of ‘jurisdiction’ against a Greek vessel, a third party, is effectively a sign of acquiescence to such jurisdiction before such third party; and in this case, due to publicity, effectively before the whole world,” he said.
“This is like saying the Philippines is not concerned that China exercises jurisdiction over Scarborough against any other State. It’s like a person not caring that his house is being managed by someone else who claims to be the owner, and makes other people recognize he is the real owner,” he explained.
Batongbacal said that even if the oil tanker is a Greek vessel, the incident should still be a concern for the country because it relies on foreign-flagged vessels for international trade.
“Only 101 ships are registered with the Philippine flag today; our international trade is carried by foreign ships,” he said.
“The freedom of the seas (including seamless navigation through all maritime zones) is a concern of all maritime trading nations, especially an archipelagic State like the Philippines. China’s actions undermine this freedom, and thus over the long term, threatens Philippine maritime interests,” he added.