China Would Be Favored By Gunboat Diplomacy

At least five vessels and several smaller Chinese salvage fleet boats steamed last week into a shoal off Palawan Island to rescue a People’s Liberation Army warship that ran stranded a reef while patrolling disputed waters in the Spratly archipelago in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The expedition at one point threatened to trigger a new confrontation between the Philippines and China and push the intensity of their territorial dispute to a higher notch since the start of a standoff of their vessels in April.

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) entered the fight on Saturday by flying surveillance planes over the Spratlys and photographing the salvage party working to free Missile Frigate No. 560 from a reef at Hasa-Hasa Shoal (international name: Half Moon Shoal).

The Australian newspaper Sydney Morning Herald, which broke the news on Friday, said the 103.2-meter, 1,425-ton frigate was patrolling disputed waters when it ran into the shallows 111 kilometers west of Palawan, and that the frigate got “thoroughly stuck” on the reef. A Philippine Coast Guard vessel was dispatched to the area to monitor the Chinese rescue operations.

The Herald story followed reports that the Philippine government was  verifying other reports that China had installed a powerful radar on Subi Reef, an islet 22 km from the Philippine-occupied Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratlys.

According to the Herald, the frigate “has in the past been involved in aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area,” in what appeared to be an act using warships to intimidate fishermen.

“The accident could not have come at a more embarrassing moment for the Chinese leadership, who have been pressing territorial claims and flexing the country’s muscle ahead of a leadership transition later this year,” the Herald article said.

Philippine defense officials went out of their way to avoid issuing offensive statements over the reef incident, and said the Philippine military was prepared to provide assistance to the wracked warship.

[In the latest development yesterday, Chinese naval ships safely removed the grounded frigate and a Chinese Embassy spokesperson said the warship was sailing back to port with minor damage].

The row over the warship spawned sensitive diplomatic issues. The Philippine government was in a quandary over whether to lodge a diplomatic protest to Beijing. If the setting up of a powerful Chinese radar station was confirmed, Malacañang officials had said, that would be a “provocation.”

Although the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was not considering a protest, its spokesperson Raul Hernandez said “we need to find out what really happened with the Chinese frigate in our territory.”

He said the DFA would ask Beijing to explain why the frigate became stuck on the shoal.

It would been embarrassing for China to accept the Philippine offer to help them out of a mess which they created by snooping into Philippine waters through their maritime patrols.

30-vessel fleet

On Thursday, after the frigate struck the reef, the Chinese mounted another show of force. Beijing dispatched one of its largest-ever fishing expeditions from Hainan Island to the Spratly archipelago.

Chinese fishing boats regularly travel to the Spratlys, which China claims as part of its territory on historical grounds but which are also claimed wholly or in part by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The 30-vessel Chinese fishing fleet is one of the largest ever launched from Hainan, according to a report by Xinhua, the state-run Chinese news agency.

Debacle in Phnom Penh

Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to channel territorial disputes to a regional mediating body suffered a setback on Friday when the Asean foreign ministers meeting in Phnom Penh failed to issue a joint communiqué on a code conduct that would  provide for multilateral resolutions of territorial disputes.

Cambodia, the host country, blocked a consensus on a draft communiqué, which would bind China. Beijing opposes a multilateral approach to conflict-resolutions, preferring a bilateral approach, which would allow her to settle disputes individually with rival claimants. That debacle shifted the arena of resolution to gunboat diplomacy through which China enjoys coercive advantage.

DFA Chief Calls For Patriotism

In the interview yesterday of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, he said that resolving the territorial argument between China would not be easy as he called for a position of “patriotism” among Filipinos and sacrifice if the Philippines is tested.

While the consultations are yet to resolve the standoff in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal which is also called or knows as Bajo de Masinloc, it should be pursued, Del Rosario mentioned that the Philippines should continue to stand up and defeat its sovereign rights over the shoal and the West Philippine Sea in general.

“We need to defend what is ours. We need to stand up even as we look for ways to solve the disputes peacefully. We need to stand for what is ours. In order for us to do this, I think it is not going to be easy – and as you see it is not easy,” Del Rosario said before the Makati Business Club and the Management Association of the Philippines.

“We need to get our people to bond together. We need to unite. We need to take a position of patriotism that what is ours is ours and we will stand for it. And it is possible that we may be tested and if we are tested, it is possible that everyone will need to make a sacrifice,” he added.

Del Rosario repeated that the Philippines is looking at different strategies to defend its claims and position in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) in general which includes the legal track of dispute settlement mechanisms, including the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

“Do we have to have China with us when we go to this dispute settlement mechanism, the answer is no. There are mechanisms there where we believe we can pursue our objectives without China being with us,” he uttered.

A map was prepared by the USA Armed Forces in 1903 and was given to Del Rosario during his last visit to Washington.

The map included Panatag Shoal as part of the island groups of the Philippines, contrary to China’s claim that it is not included in the Philippine boundaries under the Treaty of Paris.

Del Rosario said that he and the Chinese Ambassador Ma Xeqing had began to discuss the pullout of ships in Panatag Shoal when they were engaged in consultations prior to the fishing ban China announced this week, but the two sides did not arrive at a conclusion or agreement.