Sunday, July 15, 2012

AFP plane spots Chinese frigate stuck in shoal, Gazmin asks why it was in PH territory

MANILA, Philippines – (UPDATE 6:47 P.M) As a Philippine military aircraft sighted the Chinese frigate stuck on Hasahasa Shoal off Palawan, Palace officials said Saturday Philippine authorities are ready to help free up the ship that ran aground on a shoal within Philippine territory, but the defense chief says they want a good answer first on why the military boat got there.

“We will know why that ship was there,” was the reaction of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to the Chinese government’s admission that one of its Navy frigates ran aground on Hasahasa Shoal, a maritime area located in the West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, a Philippine military aircraft confirmed Saturday that a Chinese naval frigate remains stranded in disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The Chinese frigate and smaller craft were sighted by a Philippine Islander plane, said regional military spokesman Colonel Neil Anthony Estrella.
"During the aerial reconnaissance mission, they were able to confirm, based on photographs, that there is indeed a ship with bow number 560 aground at Half Moon Shoal," he told AFP.

He said five more vessels and a number of smaller boats were assisting the grounded ship.

A navy ship and a coast guard vessel had been dispatched to the area to monitor the Chinese operations, he added.

He stressed that the shoal was just 60 nautical miles from the western Philippine island of Palawan, well within the country's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognised by international law.

The stranding highlights the territorial conflicts between the two countries which marred the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia this week.

At the forum, the Philippines' foreign minister denounced Chinese "duplicity" and "intimidation" in the South China Sea and conflicting positions on the issue prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from issuing its customary joint statement.

The Hasahasa shoal is located 65 nautical miles west of the island-municipality of Balabac in Palawan. 

Defense chief Gazmin, however, said that if the Chinese ship needs help to get unstuck, the Navy and Coast Guard have been directed to go to the area to provide assistance and to also validate the incident.

“Accident or whatever, right now we are not very sure of that and that’s why we are trying to validate. If we’ve to offer assistance for them we will do so for them to get out of the place,” he said.

Gazmin said the commander of the Western Command (WESCOM), Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, has been ordered to investigate the new incursion by the Chinese Navy into the territorial waters of the Philippines.

“We’ve to investigate and the WESCOM commander was ordered to do that,” he said.

Commodore Rustom Pena, commander of the Naval Forces Western Command, said they were still getting confirmation such as a “visual report” of the ship that ran aground on Friday.

“As of now, we are preparing our assets and I cannot give you an official statement since we don’t have yet a visual report…The Coast Guard was already proceeding to the area,” he said.

Gazmin also hinted that the government may be filing a new diplomatic protest against China’s incursion.

China’s version: ‘routine patrol mission’

The Hasahasa incident was revealed to the media Friday by Chinese embassy spokesman Hua Zhang.

“According to the information we got from the Information Department of the Ministry of National Defense of China, around 7 p.m. of July 11, a frigate of Chinese Navy ran aground accidentally at Half Moon Shoal of Nansha Islands during a routine patrol mission, with no personnel injured. Currently the rescue work by the Chinese Navy is underway,” Hua said.

Four Chinese maritime surveillance ships patrolled the disputed seas surrounding the Spratlys from July 1 to 9.

In 2011, China started to aggressively impose its will over the South China Sea through a series of incursions in the islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines.

There were also reports then that Chinese jet fighters flew over the West Philippine Sea without permission from the Philippine government.

Because of the incursions, the government filed a series of diplomatic protests.

Last April,  China’s Maritime Surveillance Ships (CMS) prevented Philippine authorities from apprehending the crew and seizing shipments of endangered giant clams, corals and different kind of exotic fish species at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, just 123 nautical miles of Masiloc, Zambales and well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the country.

China is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

PH to help stuck frigate ‘if necessary’ 

If it is necessary, the Philippines will render assistance to the Chinese warship stuck at Hasa-Hasa Shoal, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

Valte said in a radio-press conference, “Well if assistance is required, then we are duty bound to render – dispute or no dispute, of course we will render assistance if needed.” 

Valte said that so far, the DFA have yet received any request of assistance from the China government.

“To my knowledge, assistance has not been asked for but it will be given if it is,” she said, refusing to comment any further.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it will first find out the current situation of the Chinese frigate first before commenting, even as it echoed the position that Manila will help free the frigate if needed.

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said in a text message, “For now, we have instructed our Embassy in Beijing to inform the Chinese Foreign Ministry that Philippine assets are willing to help the frigate get out of there.” 

On Friday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a Chinese warship ran aground in waters within 200 kilometers off the Philippine coast, and the warship is identified as “a People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, or believed to be No. 560, a Jianghu-class frigate.

The report said that Jianghu-class frigate has been involved, in the past, in “aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area".

Asked if the Philippines will protest the presence of the Chinese warship in an area that the Philippines claimed as its territory, Valte said that the matter “is being dealt with”.

“There are things that we are not at liberty to share with you. What we can say is that… it is being dealt with as of the moment,” she said. 

“[The protest] is something that will have to be considered by the Department of Foreign Affairs. The rest is something that will fall to the doorstep of the DFA,” she said.

All claimant-countries, except Brunei, have existing military posts in the contested waters which are rich in mineral and oil reserves.-Interaksyon (July 14, 2012 6:47PM)

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