MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine defense chief commended the Filipino captain of a commercial ship that was accosted by a “Chinese naval warship” near Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on September 30, saying the seasoned mariner handled the situation well.
“Maganda naman 'yung ginawa nung kapitan. Hindi siya natinag o natakot, at ipinagiitan na innocent passage ang ginawa nila,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Saturday, November 2, when asked to comment on commercial ship captain Manolo Ebora’s encounter with Chinese vessels in the Chinese-controlled area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
(The captain did well. He neither flinched nor cowered, and he insisted that they were making innocent passage.)
“Kahanga-hanga ang naging reaction niya,” Lorenzana said of Ebora, a Philippine Navy reservist with the rank of lieutenant commander. (His reaction was admirable.)
Ebora and his crew of 21 Filipino sailors onboard the Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned crude oil tanker Green Aura were passing 6 nautical miles from Scarborough, or Panatag, Shoal off Zambales at around 7:30 pm on September 30 when their radar detected the presence of several Chinese vessels in the vicinity, many of them registered as belonging to China Coast Guard (CCG).
As the Green Aura neared the shoal, it received a radio call from what claimed to be a “Chinese naval warship.” The voice on the line ordered them several times to alter the Green Aura’s course, but Ebora resisted, pointing out that they had the right to innocent passage in the area, and that the shoal was not Chinese territory but Filipino.
When Ebora insisted on staying their course, one of the nearby vessels, China Coast Guard 3302, started moving towards the Green Aura’s path in what the Filipino captain regarded as an attempt to block their path.
After several exchanges with the voice from the “Chinese naval warship,” another voice addressed the Green Aura’s crew: “This is China Coast Guard. This area is under the jurisdiction of Chinese government. You should keep away from this area.”
Ebora challenged this order, but the voice on the other end started responding in Chinese. Also, the CCG 3302 began tailing the Green Aura, so Ebora decided to veer away.
Ebora recalled the encounter in an exclusive interview with Rappler on October 30, a day after he arrived in the Philippines from China, where the Green Aura docked on October 6 after a 10-day voyage from Thailand.
On Saturday, Lorenzana slammed the “Chinese naval warship” crew’s claim that Panatag Shoal is “under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government.”
“That is what they want everybody to believe. It is part of our EEZ as per UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) of which China is a signatory. It has been proven by an international court that their so-called historical claim has no basis,” Lorenzana told Rappler.
An UNCLOS arbitral tribunal debunked China’s sweeping “9-dash line” claim over the West Philippine Sea based on spurious “historical” grounds. Instead, it broadly affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea in its decision released on July 12, 2016.
The tribunal did not rule on sovereignty – or ownership – of the waters or any of its land features. However, it declared Panatag Shoal an international fishing ground open to countries that have traditionally depended on its bounty, including the Philippines.
The shoal lies approximately 120 nautical miles from Masinloc, Zambales, where it derives its Spanish name, Bajo de Masinloc, and is part of the Philippines’ “regime of islands” in its national territory.
China’s “continued occupation of Panatag [Shoal] and continued presence in the West Philippine Sea is illegal,” said Lorenzana, who has consistently called out Chinese “bullying” of Filipinos in the area.
China has blockaded the shoal since June 2012, barring access to Filipino fishermen. A leader of a fisherfolk group in Zambales told Rappler in September that their catch has declined by 80% because of the Chinese blockade. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.