Maritime expert hits Panelo for downplaying China ship harassment

MANILA, Philippines – Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal took exception to Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo's insistence that the harassment of a Chinese "naval warship" of Filipino-crewed commercial ship passing by Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) is not Malacañang's concern.

In a series of tweets on Monday, November 4, Batongbacal said Panelo's remarks were ill-advised and could harm Philippine foreign policy on an issue as sensitive as Philippine rights in the West Phlippine Sea.

"This is just so WRONG on several levels. When will someone stop Panelo from speaking out of turn on matters of foreign policy?" said Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

On Sunday, Panelo said the harassment incident is not a concern of the Philippine government since the Filipino-crewed ship was a foreign-flagged one.

However, the incident took place in Panatag Shoal, which belongs to Philippine waters, according to Philippine laws. The 2016 Hague ruling declared the area as international fishing grounds. Chinese vessels thus have no right to regulate innocent passage of commercial ships.

Batongbacal explained that Malacañang should see the Chinese vessel's actions as an affront because it was Beijing's way of asserting control over an area it has no exclusive rights over.

"This is like saying PH is not concerned that CN (China) exercises jurisdiction over Scarborough against any other State. It's like a person not caring that his house is being managed by someone else who claims to be the owner, and makes other people recognize he is the real owner," said Batongbacal.

Silence on China's actions, even against a foreign vessel, is "effectively a sign of acquiescence" that China does hold jurisdiction over Panatag Shoal, he said.

If China is able to exploit the shoal's resources because of that "jurisdiction," this would be a violation of the 1987 Constitution which states that resources in the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) must be for the sole benefit of Filipinos.

Flag of ship irrelevant

Batongbacal refuted Panelo's assertion that, because the ship harassed by Chinese is not a Filipino ship, the incident is no longer of concern to the Philippine government.

"Even if it is Greek vessel, it should be our concern, because PH relies on foreign-flagged vessels for international trade," said the academic, adding only 101 ships are Philippine-flagged.

Much of the world's trade happens in the sea which is why many countries assert freedom of navigation in sea lanes. Beijing has frequently been criticized for how its claim to the West Philippine Sea and other bodies of water could undermine this.

"The freedom of the seas (including seamless navigation through all maritime zones) is a concern of ALL maritime trading nations, especially an archipelagic State like the PH," said Batongbacal.

Rappler reported that a Chinese vessel that introduced itself as a "naval warship" harassed a Filipino-crewed crude oil tanker in Panatag Shoal on September 30. The Chinese ship claimed Beijing had jurisdiction over the feature, a claim invalidated by a July 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

The incident occurs as China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are trying to finalize a code of conduct in the South China Sea in 2021.

Panelo said Sunday that the incident would have no impact on the code's crafting.

Meanwhile, Philippine defense chief Delfin Lorenzana responded to the incident by making a general call to all countries to "exercise prudence and respect freedom of navigation and passage in the West Philippine Sea."

He also reiterated that Panatag Shoal is within Philippine waters and that the 2016 Hague ruling declared it as common fishing grounds. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

image