MANILA, Philippines – House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano downplayed China's alleged harassment of a Filipino-crewed commercial ship near Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea, saying the incident is "nothing new."
"So I'm not saying it's right, it's not right for China to do it, but I'm just saying that's the facts on the ground; it's nothing new," said Cayetano in an ambush interview at the House of Representatives on Monday, November 4.
"In fact, no'ng panahon ni [former] president [Benigno] Aquino [III], ni hindi makapasok 'yung mga ships natin sa loob ng lagoon ng Scarborough pagka may bagyo. Ngayon, nakakapasok na. So we just have to deal with it and deal with it decisively," he added.
(In fact, during the term of former president Benigno Aquino III, our ships couldn't even enter the lagoon of Scarborough during typhoons. Now they can. So we just have to deal with it and deal with it decisively.)
Cayetano, a former Department of Foreign Affairs secretary, did not want to use the term "harassment" to refer to what the "Chinese warship" did to the Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned Green Aura oil tanker that was manned by an all-Filipino crew. (READ: EXCLUSIVE: Chinese ‘naval warship’ harasses Filipino-crewed ship near Scarborough Shoal)
He said it is expected of claimant countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, China, and the Philippines to assert sovereignty when a foreign ship passes through disputed waters in the South China Sea.
"So that is an SOP (standard operating procedure), protocol 'yun sa lahat ng country to keep asserting. So if you're just asserting, that's okay. Pero kung hinaharang mo na 'yung ship or ini-impede mo na 'yung freedom of navigation, ibang usapan 'yun," said Cayetano.
(So that is an SOP, that's protocol for all countries to keep asserting. So if you're just asserting, that's okay. But if you're blocking the ship or if you're impeding the freedom of navigation, that's another issue altogether.)
"So that's why I'm careful in using the word harassment because we draw the line between announcement at nagraradyo o kaya may loudspeaker and we draw the line pagka 'yung freedom to navigate ay impeded na. So kailangan bantay na bantay tayo na whether it's a gray or white ship, especially commercial ships, unimpeded sila sa West Philippine Sea, South China Sea," he added.
(So that's why I'm careful in using the word harassment because we draw the line between announcements made using radios or loudspeakers and we draw the line when freedom to navigate is impeded. So we need to stay on guard whether it's a gray or white ship, especially commercial ships, so they would remain unimpeded in the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea.)
Filipinos should 'not be in harm's way'
Still, the Taguig City-Pateros congressman said the latest incident in Scarborough Schoal concerns the Philippine government because Filipinos were involved.
This is in contrast to the statement of Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, though Cayetano still defended the latter. (READ: Panelo: Harassment of Filipino-crewed ship 'not our concern')
"You know, anything that has to do with Filipinos – of course, it's our concern. But 'yung pagkaintindi ko sa context ni Secretary Panelo (the way I understand the context of Secretary Panelo) is that we will protest if it is a Philippine-registered ship. If not, it's up to the nationality of that ship to make the protest," said Cayetano.
“But definitely, hindi puwedeng in harm's way ang Filipino crew (the Filipino crew cannot be in harm's way)," he added.
A Rappler exclusive report showed that Green Aura received a radio call from what claimed to be a "Chinese naval warship" ordering it to change course as it was passing 6 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal off Zambales on September 30.
Ship captain Manolo Ebora, a Filipino, pointed out that they had the right to innocent passage and that the area is a territory of the Philippines. Green Aura also had a crew of 21 Filipinos.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana commended Ebora for standing his ground and handling the situation well.