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MANILA, Philippines - As tensions between China and the Philippines escalate over the standoff at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei has asked the Philippines to “keep to [the] diplomatic consultation” track and to stop “stirring public opinion” on the matter.
“The Chinese side urges the Philippine side to concretely respect China’s territorial sovereignty, refrain from any practice that may magnify and complicate the situation, and in particular, keep to diplomatic consultation to address the situation instead of continuing to stir up public opinion and deliver self-contradictory information,” Hong Lei said in response to e-mailed questions coursed through the Chinese embassy here.
Even as Philippine leaders, including President Benigno Aquino III and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, announced a resolution of the dispute soon, citizens of both countries have mounted protests against competing claims by each other on the rock formations that shelter rich marine species in the seas off Zambales province in Luzon.
Scarborough Shoal is Huangyan Island to China and Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc to the Philippines. Some members of the Chinese-controlled media have been calling for a military solution to the standoff. US submarines and other complications The two sides have separately and repeatedly announced their commitments to a “diplomatic” solution.
“We are committed to addressing the current situation at the Huangyan Island through diplomatic consultation,” Hong Lei said.
Del Rosario said: “It is our belief that through continuing consultations, the crisis there could be defused peacefully. As the President has stated, we welcome China’s emergence as a stable, peaceful, prosperous, and responsible nation. We would like to put the standoff behind us and look forward to a positive relationship with China.”
The question on who has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal has become more complicated with the 100-percent inspection of Philippine banana exports to China, the flight and hotel cancellations of Chinese tourists, and the involvement of the United States in the dispute. Del Rosario said the presence of the US nuclear-powered submarine USS North Carolina in Subic “is not a provocation” to China.
He said he only came to know of the submarine’s visit through the papers. “The submarine is there for reprovisioning and it’s not a provocation,” the DFA secretary said. Both parties are firm in asserting the rightfulness of their claims.
In his e-mail, the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman said: “The Chinese government is firmly determined to defend China’s territorial sovereignty over the Huangyan Island.”
After his presentation at the Makati Business Club, Secretary del Rosario said: “We need to defend what is ours, even as we look for ways to settle [the] dispute. It’s not going to be easy. We need to get our people to unite together and show our patriotism. What is ours is ours, we need to stand for it. We may be tested for it. We should be willing to make a sacrifice.”
The issue started on April 8 when Philippine forces monitored Chinese fishing boats and Chinese fishermen’s poaching of endangered marine species like giant clams, corals, and sharks in the lagoon of the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine government sent the country’s premier warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to the site, where it encountered two Chinese government ships guarding the mouth of the lagoon.
On Wednesday, militant group Bayan (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan) questioned the entry of a nuclear-powered fast-attack US submarine in Subic, Zambales even as the Philippines' Defense department insisted that it was there only for a routine "port call" and has nothing to do with the ongoing standoff at Scarborough.
In a statement, Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. said the presence of the USS North Carolina was reminiscent of the time the US bases were in the country.
"Virtual basing and hosting of US warships are being justified by the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement. Philippine ports like Subic are again providing logistics support for US ships. We might see more of these port calls now that the US is rebalancing towards Asia,” said Reyes.
“The Philippines is de facto hosting US warships presumably armed with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The entry of the nuclear submarine may be in contravention of the Philippine constitutional ban on nuclear weapons. The problem is that under the VFA, the US neither confirms nor denies that its ships carry nuclear weapons. However, the presumption is that they do, especially the more advanced ships,” he added.
The USS North Carolina (SSN 777) arrived at Subic Bay in Zambales on May 13 and will stay until May 19. It is a Virginia-class (nuclear-powered) fast attack submarine with a crew of 133.
Scarborough is part of the town of Masinloc also in Zambales. Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez denied that it was related to the Scarborough standoff and said the port call was coordinated with the department as early as April 3.
"That’s even before any of the issues...and these are not related to anything. These are regular port calls that any other country, any vessel from any other country would normally do whether from, you’ve seen that other countries also visiting or having port calls in the country," Galvez said. But Reyes expressed fears that this may have "negative repercussions" with the dispute with China.
“The port calls made by US warships is part of a greater strategy to project US military power in the region. It is directed at all countries in the region, but most especially China, in order to keep China subservient to US dictates,” Reyes said.