China warned: Don’t push PH to the wall
The strong diplomatic protest against China’s water-cannon attack on Filipino fishers on Jan. 27 in Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea was followed by an announcement by the Armed Forces of the Philippines that the disputed islet, which Manila claims as Bajo de Masinloc, would now be under the jurisdiction of the Western Command.
The shift sent a strong signal that the Philippines was using all its diplomatic and military resources, no matter how limited, to protect its fishers from Chinese harassment in territories it claims as an integral part of the country. The AFP’s response supplemented the diplomatic protest lodged by the Department of Foreign Affairs with the newly arrived Chinese ambassador-designate Zhao Jinhua.
Although the AFP made a calibrated response to the Chinese attacks amid persistent and bullying actions in the West Philippine Sea, there was no doubt it served notice that the Philippines was backing its diplomatic protest with whatever military muscle at its command to defend the country’s territorial interests.
Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal, is located off the province of Zambales. It had been under the Northern Luzon Command.
In the strongest yet reaction to the attacks, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, AFP spokesperson, denounced the Chinese action, saying that while the attack was “alarming,” it did not warrant an immediate military response. “I do not think it would be appropriate if we send the Philippine Navy at this time. It will just escalate the situation,” Zagala said. “Rest assured that the Armed Forces will do its mandate when the time comes.”
In putting the disputed Bajo de Masinloc under the Western Command, the AFP was backing its warning with a show of force. The transfer “is to enhance our external defense capabilities which are now being concentrated on the Western Command and unity of command [and assets] so that our external defense will just be under one commander,” Zagala said. The Western Command is headed by Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda of the Air Force.
According to Zagala, the Western Command traditionally is commanded by an Air Force or Navy officer “primarily because of external [factors] and the battle space is the sea and the air.” The Western Command “has the necessary assets that can address territorial defense and monitoring,” he said. It has “the necessary aircraft that can fly to all these areas for the purpose of monitoring [and reporting] to higher government office,” Zagala said.
The military warning followed a note verbale issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs, protesting incidents of harassment by Chinese vessels of Filipino fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc.
“Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of the Philippines over which the Philippines exercises sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction. Philippine vessels have been routinely, continuously, and peacefully and sustainably fishing in Bajo de Masinloc,” Assistant Foreign Secretary Raul Hernandez said.
But Chinese spokesperson Zhang Hua rejected the Philippines’ protest. He urged the Philippines to work with China to resolve differences “through bilateral consultations and negotiations.” But Zhang reiterated China’s position that it had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. “Chinese government vessels are conducting regular patrols within China’s jurisdiction,” he said.
The Chinese position collides head-on with the Philippine position, while the mounting tensions over the territorial disputes have increased the risks of naval confrontations. China has enhanced its naval presence in the area, and the Philippines has built up its military forces to counter the growing aggressive assertion of Chinese naval power in the region.
The Philippines’ protest covers an incident on Jan. 27 when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel used a water cannon on Filipino fishing vessels, as well as nine other reported incidents of harassment of Filipino vessels by Chinese patrol ships, including occasions when they were barred from seeking shelter in Bajo de Masinloc during bad weather. “The whole thing is under protest. Their being there is under protest, and also, their attempts to drive away Filipino fishermen is also under protest,” the DFA said, adding:
“The whole scheme that is being undertaken by the Chinese government in our territory and where we have sovereign rights is under protest. The crux, the core issue, is the nine-dash-line claim which is expansive and illegal, according to international law.”
The patience of the AFP, whose interventions are restrained by diplomatic efforts, is wearing thin, and the provocative acts by Chinese Coast Guard patrols can easily explode into armed confrontation. The AFP, in beefing up the Western Command, has issued the warning against Chinese aggressive actions in Scarborough Shoal: Don’t push the Philippines to the wall. Don’t bully us too much. We can use our weapons to fire back, if fired upon.
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