Chinese boats return to Scarborough Shoal

Posted at 06/26/2012 7:13 PM | Updated as of 06/27/2012 10:57 AM

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - The Philippine Navy and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Tuesday that Chinese ships and fishing boats have returned to the disputed Scarborough Shoal off Zambales.

Following an aerial surveillance by a Navy Islander plane, Navy flag officer-in-command Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said that as of Monday afternoon, a total of 28 Chinese vessels and boats were spotted in and outside the lagoon.

These consist of three China maritime surveillance (CMS) vessels, two Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ships, six fishing boats, and 17 dinghies.

All the fishing boats and dinghies were inside the lagoon, while the bigger vessels were stationed outside, he said.

Pama also reported that there were no Philippine ships stationed there after the government withdrew the vessels days ago due to bad weather.

The DFA, in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, said: “It has been confirmed by the Philippine Navy (PN) that, as of two days ago, there were no more ships inside the lagoon. The Chinese fishing boats have obviously returned.”

The DFA had said Monday that all ships and boats of the Philippines and China had left the lagoon. “Based on coordination with the Philippines and China, as of two days ago, we have received information that all boats have left the lagoon in Bajo de Masinloc. There are no longer any boats from either the Philippines or China inside the shoal.”

China lied?

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the information gathered from the aerial survey was a “factual operational report.”

The information gathered also contradicts China’s earlier pronouncements it had pulled out its vessels, specifically from the lagoon.

Pama would not say that China lied. “I would not cast judgment on (China). I’m just reporting on what our (plane saw).”

Gazmin said: “We don’t want to react to that. But what we are giving you is the factual operational report.”

Asked if the Philippine government will be sending its own vessels back to Scarborough, Gazmin said there is no final decision yet.

“There is still no instruction. But in fairness, the weather is bad, the waves are big and our ships may not endure this,” he said.

Malacañang earlier said it would re-evaluate whether to send back Philippine vessels to the disputed shoal.

Gazmin admitted that the country’s absence in Scarborough may affect its territorial claim.

“But the fact that our patrol is continuing, though not by ships but by aircraft, and we are getting data, it will somehow help,”

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the ball is now in the Palace's hands.

"The DFA has made its recommendation and let's wait for the decision of higher authorities," he said.

Malacañang earlier said it would re-evaluate whether to send back Philippine vessels to the disputed shoal.

Gazmin admitted that the country’s absence in Scarborough may affect its territorial claim.

“But the fact that our patrol is continuing, though not by ships but by aircraft, and we are getting data, it will somehow help,” he said.

'China fortifying presence'

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said that China "will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters," referring to Scarborough shoal that is called Panatag by the Philippines.

Asked whether Chinese ships have withdrawn from Huangyan Island, Hong said that tensions around the island are easing, and that the Chinese government ships have always had jurisdiction and vigilance over the areas around Huangyan Island.
 
 On June 19, Hong said China did not give any commitment to the Philippines that it will withdraw its ships.
 
"We wonder where the so-called China's commitment of 'withdrawing ship' comes from. We hope the Philippine side can restrain its words and deeds and do more things conducive to the development of bilateral relations," he said.
 
"As far as I know, Chinese fishing boats are heading back to port for shelter due to the rough seas off the Huangyan Island. In order to ensure the safety of Chinese fishermen and fishing boats, the China Maritime Research and Rescue Center, upon the request of China's Fishery Administration Command Center and Chinese fishermen, has sent the 'Nanhaijiu 115' ship to the area and provide necessary assistance," he added.

Zhuang Guotu, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, told the Global Times, a tabloid of the Communist Party-owned People's Daily that "China has never made commitments that it would pull out from the waters around the island. The Philippine side is saying this to get out of an awkward situation."
 
On Thursday, China raised the administrative status of the Spratlys and other disputed islets, reefs, and shoals in the West Philippine Sea from county-level to prefectural-level, according to Chinese state media.

China's State Council gave the green light for the setting up of a new prefectural-level city of Sansha (City of Three Sands) to govern the Nansha (Spratlys), Xisha (Paracels), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield bank) islands, state news agency Xinhua reported.

"All these efforts signal that China is fortifying its presence," Zhuang said. -- with reports from Jay Ruiz, ABS-CBN News