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PHL NAVY DEPLOYS WARSHIP, UPS WEST PHL SEA PATROLS; Country boosting defenses as Beijing warns of arrest

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief

MANILA/PALAWAN/ZAMBALES— The Philippine Navy has deployed a warship to Escoda Shoal or Sabina Shoal, only 75 miles from Palawan and a part of Philippine territory, amid the suspected reclamation activities of China in the area fuelling further tension in the already fully charged dispute between the Philippines and China in West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.

This as around 100 boats left Zambales early Wednesday morning (May 15, Manila time) for a civilian mission to Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, another Philippine territory in the West Phippine Sea amid reports that Chinese ships have massed near the area.

In a related development, China said it has given authority to its Coast Guard to arrest and detain up to 60 days without trial foreigners that will attempt to enter or trespass what it considers its maritime borders starting June 15.

National Security Council (NSC) Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya shrugged off China’s latest announcement

He called on all of the other countries in Southeast Asia and other nations complying with international law to continue sailing in these “high seas”.

“Nothing will stop us there except ourselves. I-assert natin ang supremacy ng (we will assert) international law because that’s the only way we can have a rules-based international order,” Malaya said.

As the 2024  Balikatan military drills on air, land and sea participated by some 18,000 American and Filipino soldiers with 14 observer countries drew to a close,   President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. said the international support for the Philippines in asserting its sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (WPS) is vital in ensuring stability in the maritime domain.

 President Marcos said he remains thankful for the global support amid China’s aggression in the disuputed waters.

“Kami’y nagpapasalamat sa lahat ng mga iba’t ibang bansa kahit na nanggagaling sa malayo pa ngunit sila ay handang tumulong sa atin (We are grateful to the various countries, even those from afar, for their willingness to support us),” he said. 

The civilian boats belonging to the group Atin Ito Coalition said they will carry supplies to fishermen and will install symbolic markers or buoys in Bajo de Masinloc, part of the town of Masinloc, Zambales and within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and some 124 miles from the Zambales coastline.

“The Navy has increased its patrols in Sabina Shoal. For the past good number of days, we have had one warship stationed in the area. This is to ensure that whoever is doing that, whoever is piling up dead corals in Sabina Shoal, we will be able to expose their activities,” said  Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, Navy spokesperson for the West Philippine.

“So far, none. The approach here, it will take more than a military effort. The approach here is to show the world that we are a responsible player following international law,” he said, noting there have been no reclamation activities monitored in the area in the past few days.

The growing maritime threat from China in Southeast Asia has prompted the Philippines to accelerate plans to beef up its defenses and boost its military, according to military, security and defense experts.

National Security Adviser Eduardo Año has ordered an intensified patrol in the West Philippine Sea following China’s attempt to conduct reclamation activities at a shoal in the area, the National Security Council said (NSC) said

Former US Air Force official and ex-Defense Attaché Ray Powell, meanwhile, said he is tracking the “largest blockade” in Scarborough Shoal.

In another development, retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged the Marcos administration to sue China anew for damages due to the destruction of Escoda Shoal and Rozul Reef, all within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Carpio, at the same. time, warned that losing Escoda (Sabina) Shoal by allowing China to build an artifical island there will have a decades-long impact on the Philippines’ energy security.

Carpio underscored the need to defend Escoda Shoal because of its proximity to Recto (Reed) Bank and the rich oil deposits there.

“[Kapag] may outpost sila [sa Escoda], puwede nila bantayan 24 hours a day ‘yung Reed Bank… Reed Bank is rich in gas… Ang estimate natin, two to three times larger than Malampaya,” said Carpio, referring to the Malampaya natural gas field in northern Palawan.

“China is sending a huge force to blockade Scarborough Shoal ahead of the Atin Ito civilian convoy setting sail from the Philippines. By this time tomorrow at least four coast guard and 26 large maritime militia ships on blockade (not counting ‘dark’ vessels),” Powell said on X (formerly Twitter)

“This will be by far the largest blockade I’ll have ever tracked at Scarborough. China seems determined to aggressively enforce its claim over the shoal, of which it seized control from the Philippines in 2012 as summarized by AsiaMTI,” Powell added.

It was stressed that the “peaceful” civilian mission—which is set to end on May 17, Friday—is a legitimate exercise of Filipino citizens’ rights and Philippine sovereign rights based on international law.

NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya, also spokesman of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) which Año heads, also said they are “alarmed” by the development at Escoda Shoal, also known as Sabina Shoal.

The shoal is about 71 nautical miles or 132 kilometers from the coastline of mainland Palawan, said Commodore Jay Tarriela, spokesman of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for the West Philippine Sea who disclosed China’s island reclamation attempt at a forum.

Tarriela said the attempt, similar to that at sand bars or cays near the Philippine-occupied Pagasa Island, was averted with the deployment of a PCG vessel, BRP Teresa Magbanua.

Tarriela has said PCG divers recently discovered crushed corals at the seabed of Escoda Shoal, which he said were indications of “small-scale” island reclamation.

Malaya said Año, upon learning of the Chinese activity, ordered that the information be made public “in consonance with our transparency policy,” thus the news forum last Saturday.

“The National Task Force West Philippine Sea, led by Secretary Año, has already directed an intensified guarding of all our features within the West Philippine Sea, within our 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone,” he said.

 The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said  it would maintain a “prolonged presence” in Escoda Shoal, commonly known as Sabina Shoal, following the sightings of Chinese vessels and the discovery of dumped crushed corals in the feature.

The PCG, under the instruction of PCG Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gavan, deployed BRP Teresa Magbanua on April 15 after receiving an intelligence report that the Chinese were conducting unauthorized marine research in the feature.

PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, Commodore Jay Tarriela, said this is the PCG’s “longest” deployment on record in the West Philippine Sea, with BRP Cabra and BRP Malabrigo also conducting rotational deployment from the shoal to Rozul Reef.

In its initial dives to assess the shoal, Tarriela said, the PCG found that some of its sand bars have expanded in size due to the dumped corals.

Trinidad added that the Philippine Navy will ensure that no reclamation activity will be done by foreign vessels in features “well within the sovereign rights and sovereignty of the Philippines.”

“We will do everything to ensure that Sabina and all other features within our EEZ will remain under Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights,” he said.

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