A Chinese salvage fleet of at least five vessels and several smaller boats steamed last week into a shoal off Palawan island to rescue a People’s Liberation Army warship that ran aground 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 showdown 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 fray 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 provocative statements over the reef incident, and said the Philippine military was prepared to provide assistance to the stricken 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.
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.