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Philippines Ends Naval Patrols Near Scarborough Shoal

Felipe Villamor
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Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana tours Pag-asa, an island claimed by Manila in the South China Sea, April 21, 2017.

The Philippines has virtually capitulated to Beijing by stopping naval patrols around a disputed shoal in the South China Sea since early 2016, a Filipino lawmaker alleged Tuesday.

House of Representatives member Gary Alejano disputed a statement by the country’s national security adviser that the halt in naval operations was recent and meant to ease tensions caused by overlapping territorial claims in the sea. Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang following an Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit in the Philippines.

“I have learned that since January of 2016 up to the present, the Philippine Navy has not conducted a single mission to Panatag Shoal,” Alejano said, using the Filipino name of Scarborough Shoal, a triangular shaped chain of reefs that lies only 227 miles (137 miles) west of Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines.

Alejano noted that the Philippines actively guarded the shoal beginning in 2012 when Chinese ships were spotted near the area.

“In the years that followed, very few patrols were conducted,” Alejano, an ex-Marine captain, said. “In 2016, the government eventually ordered the complete halt of patrols in the area.”

Alejano’s statement was meant to counter National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who recently said the navy had been pulled from the area to ease tensions with Beijing.

“His statement holds little to no merit at all since the Philippines has already stopped conducting navy patrols for almost two years now,” Alejano said. “This is a clear attempt to hide the fact that we have long ceased our efforts to strengthen our claims on the disputed areas.”

The previous Philippine government took the Chinese government to court following a diplomatic standoff between the two nations over the shoal, which is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila by rejecting China’s vast claims over the resource-rich and strategic sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. But Beijing ignored the ruling, which the international community had hailed as landmark.

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea on historical grounds, including areas near the shores of smaller neighbors. Apart from China and the Philippines, other Southeast Asian countries – Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – along with Taiwan claim parts of the sea region.

‘Practically surrendered our rights’

Alejano said he had received intelligence that Chinese ships were still harassing Filipino fishermen despite last year’s ruling. Chinese forces have in fact “become more bold and fearless” in asserting their presence, with Filipino fishermen often opting to just stay away.

The government had also ordered the air force to stop aerial patrols over the island, but the command had refused to comply, Alejano said. As a compromise patrols are carried out just once a month.

“It is extremely disheartening to see our own government limiting the AFP from performing its mandate,” he said, referring to the nation’s armed forces.

“We have practically surrendered our rights in the West Philippine Sea by acceding to the requests, or shall we say pressures from China. The Duterte administration has bargained our claims in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for promised economic concessions,” Alejano said, using the Philippine name for South China Sea.

While the government has been providing boats and equipment to fishing communities in coastal provinces facing the disputed sea region, these ships lack the range to reach the shoal or sail farther out to the Spratly chain of islands, he said.

Construction halted

Alejano’s assertions came shortly after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana publicly announced that Duterte had ordered a stop to the construction of huts on a sandbar near Pag-asa Island (also known as Thitu), a Philippine-claimed territory in the South China Sea.

The sandbar is about 2.5 nautical miles from Pag-asa, the Filipino word for “hope.”

Duterte has taken a friendly approach to the territorial dispute in hopes of repairing bilateral ties. His government moved to appease Beijing after last year’s ruling by the international arbitration tribunal.

Following this month’s ASEAN summit, Premier Li stayed behind in Manila where he was feted by Duterte. The two leaders noted a warming of relations, and witnessed the signing of multi-million dollar trade deals.

Duterte had noted a positive turnaround in relations, an observation shared by Li.

Before the one-to-one meeting, the 10 members of ASEAN released a “chairman’s statement” that reaffirmed the importance of “peaceful resolution of disputes and the maintenance of peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in and over flight in the South China Sea.”

“We also emphasized the importance of non-militarization in the South China Sea,” the document said, with all parties pledging to work for the conclusion of an effective code of conduct that would govern actions in the sea region.

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