MANILA, Philippines – The Department of National Defense called on China to respect international maritime law, following a Rappler report that a vessel which claimed to be a “Chinese naval warship” accosted a Filipino-crewed commercial ship near Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on September 30.
Panatag Shoal is also known as Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana first called for calm in an official statement sent to reporters on Sunday, November 3: “Since the Green Aura, a Liberian ship, was able to safely reach its intended port of destination unimpeded, we believe that what happened should not be blown out of proportion or sensationalized.”
“An official report of this incident has been forwarded to the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) for their appropriate action,” Lorenzana added.
“We, however, would like to reiterate our call for all countries to exercise prudence and respect freedom of navigation and passage in the West Philippine Sea. Bajo de Masinloc is well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, and the 2016 arbitral ruling declared that it is a common fishing area,” the defense chief went on.
“The Chinese government must respect international maritime laws if it wants to earn the respect of the international community,” the statement concluded.
The Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned crude oil tanker Green Aura was passing through Philippine waters on its way from Nongyao, Thailand to Longkou, China, when a Chinese vessel challenged it as it neared Panatag Shoal at around 7:30 pm on September 30.
A radio call from one of several Chinese vessels nearby introduced itself as a “Chinese naval warship,” although most of the vessels registered on the radar as China Coast Guard ships. However, one vessel’s name could not be detected by the Green Aura’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS).
The Green Aura’s Filipino captain, Manolo Ebora, responded to the call and stated their destination, after which the voice on the line ordered him to change the ship’s course to avoid the shoal. Ebora insisted on maintaining their course, citing innocent passage, and questioned the Chinese crew’s order.
“Chinese warship, why should I alter my course to 10 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal? Is this Chinese territory?” Ebora radioed the other vessel.
The Chinese crew repeated the order to change the Green Aura’s course several times but Ebora stayed their course. One of the China Coast Guard ships started to move in and tail the Green Aura, an apparent move to block its path.
When Ebora kept challenging the Chinese crew to say whether the area was Chinese territory, another voice came on the line and said, “This is China Coast Guard. This area is under the jurisdiction of Chinese government. You should keep away from this area.”
The voice on the line also started speaking in Chinese. At this, Ebora desisted and veered away from the Chinese vessels.
The next morning, October 1, Ebora radioed the Philippine Navy station in Bolinao, Pangasinan, to report the encounter.
Also on Saturday, Lorenzana commended Ebora for handling the encounter well, saying his reaction to the challenge from the Chinese was “admirable.”
Lorenzana added that the Chinese claim of jurisdiction over Panatag Shoal and their continued presence there are “illegal.”
China claims spurious “historical rights” to much of the West Philippine Sea, including Panatag Shoal. It ignored the 2016 arbitral award by a tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which declared China’s sweeping claim void and affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.
Lorenzana pointed out in his latest statement that China’s violation of the UNCLOS-based ruling contravenes its bid to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate power. – 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.