STILL RE-EVALUATING ON REDEPLOYMENT OF SHIPS — PALACE
The Palace remains undecided and indicated yesterday that the government was still in the “re-evaluation” stage on the prospect of redeploying Philippine boats in the Scarborough Shoal despite the presence of a growing number of Chinese vessels in the area, saying that President Aquino was “too busy” to firm up a decision.
“Not today (Wednesday). The President has several meetings today,” said Lacierda when asked for details on when Aquino would meet officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and other relevant agencies that form part of the re-evaluation team.
Aquino cited typhoon “Butchoy” last June 18 for his decision to recall ships deployed in the shoal that in effect China considered a withdrawal since it ordered its state-owned ships to stay put on the disputed area. As of yesterday, the military counted 28 Chinese ships in the Scarborough Shoal area.
An irate Aquino, meanwhile, issued a gag order which in effect limits issuance of statements and updates to the DFA.
Apparently referring to the statement issued by the Philippine Navy that claims to be ready for deployment in the Scarborough Shoal in reciprocation to the 28 Chinese vessels reported to have returned to the disputed area, Aquino appeared to have been irked amid what he described as “unnecessary statements” which could trigger or escalate tension at the disputed region off the waters of Zambales.
At a press briefing, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that all public announcements of updates in the Panatag Shoal standoff will be issued only by the DFA. Lacierda said Malacañang would defer issuing comments on the official Palace position on China maintaining the presence of ships in the disputed area off Zambales province.
“We will defer to the Department of Foreign Affairs. The DFA issued a press release yesterday or at least a text to us that informed us that the Chinese ships are back in Panatag. So we will just leave it to the DFA to make the statements. As our policy, we do not want to escalate any tensions so we would leave it with the DFA to issue the statements,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda said the DFA is still waiting for the availability of Aquino whom he claimed as very busy yesterday even as he said that the government agencies and offices reevaluating the situation in Panatag has not yet wrapped-up discussions from where a recommendation will be formed as to whether or not the government should re-deploy ships in an area that China and Philippines claim as theirs.
Lacierda hinted at the weather as among the factors that the President might have been considering even before a re-deployment order is issued to the Philippine Navy which earlier claimed to be ready and just awaiting for orders for them to sail toward the contested Scarborough Shoal.
“Based on considerations, for instance, will the weather now be a consideration also? That will… There will be parameters that will be considered and that’s why there would be a discussion on the—there will be a reevaluation of the parameters”, Lacierda noted.
He said that the Philippine government maintains its position asserting sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal and the West Philippine Sea as a whole. “The President’s position still stands. Again, but that will depend on the DFA, which would still have to discuss this with the President. They have not yet met. So they will be discussing it,” he said.
He likewise shrugged off observations seeing an administration that has taken a turn-around from its being assertive to soft.
“To our knowledge, there has been no softening. We maintain our position. The reason for withdrawing the vessels as mentioned by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs is primarily the weather consideration. Now, that is subject to reevaluation and we are going to ask the Secretary of Foreign Affairs or the DFA whether a reevaluation has been made and it will be done in consultation with the SFA and the President”, Lacierda added.
Asked whether the Philippine government would make another diplomatic protest on the most recent development at the tension-gripped Scarborough Shoal, he claimed it would be among the issues that the multi-agency taskforce that was formed by the President to re-evaluate the situation in the disputed region, will address.
Likewise seen as deterring the government from redeploying government ships is what Lacierda claims as an ongoing discussion with the Chinese Embassy.
“There have been discussions with the Chinese Embassy. So that’s ongoing that’s why we have always stated and we have always advocated dialog between the countries and that’s something that we are not giving up on”.
Asked whether the ongoing discussion between the DFA and the Chinese diplomats in Manila embarks on pull-out of vessels in Panatag, he claimed clueless on its details while reiterating on the government’s thrust geared on a peaceful resolution on the Panatag Shoal standoff.
Aquino himself told the reporters during a sortie in Davao, that “the position of the government on the Panatag Shoal issue is clear—that if Chinese vessels are found there, we will redeploy our ships”.
Lacierda also said that the President prefers a full discussion of the conditions in the area before pursuing a declared intent to redeploy Philippine ships that were pulled out last week due to bad weather.
Lacierda also told Palace reporters that the government will still redeploy its boats to the area off Masinloc, Zambales if Chinese ships would insist on keeping their position at the shoal area described as part of Masinloc town in Zambales.
Beijing was reported to have deployed four maritime surveillance ships to the South China Sea (called West Philippine Sea by Manila) on regular patrols.
Prior to the Philippine Navy statement that had China deploying 28 vessels at the Scarborough Shoal, the DFA announced that all Chinese ships had left the area.
This developed as Lacierda dismissed China’s protest over the establishment of a school on Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys, saying Pag-asa has long been Philippine territory as manifested in a list that shows the area as listed among the voting precincts.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also justified its initial findings that Hong Kong-registered ship, Peach Mountain could have been responsible in ramming a Filipino fishing boat off the waters of Pangasinan, citing eyewitness accounts and the bulk vessel’s closeness to the vicinity of the mishap.
Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said that M/V Peach Mountain became the focus of initial investigation by the PCG due to accounts provided by the survivors themselves following their rescue on June 20 in Ilocos Sur.
Balilo maintained that the cargo ship, an Australian-owned, 138-meter cargo vessel registered in Hong Kong, is the primary suspect in ramming fishing boat AXL John along the waters of Bolinao that resulted in the killing of one fisherman while four others remained missing.
“For our part, we focus on M/V Peach Mountain because of eye witness account but, of course, we cannot discount the possibility that there were other vessels,” said Balilo.
“It was the closest that we saw and based on the eye witness account that it bore Hong Kong markings with maroon and blue. So that’s what we checked,” added Balilo.
Asked if M/V Peach Mountain remains the primary suspect, Balilo replied “it could be but there are many possibilities…but we have reason why we checked on it first.”
“The description given was the same (with M/V Peach Mountain),” said Balilo.
Reminded of the latest statements issued the AXL John’s captain to the Navy and revealed on Tuesday by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin that the fishing boat was not actually rammed by the cargo vessel, Balilo said “that is why I am also wondering. The instruction of Captain (Leo) Laroya is to ask the fishermen once and for all.”
“Maybe now, they are in better condition,” added Balilo.
Laroya is the Coast Guard district commander for Northern Luzon.
Earlier, navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said that at least 90 cargo vessels, including M/V peach Mountain, could have passed through the area where the alleged ramming incident happened. An investigation is now ongoing to zero in on the culprit.
Relatedly, Balilo said that search and rescue operations are still ongoing along the waters of Pangasinan, particularly in Lingayen and Laoag in Ilocos Sur.
“Search and rescue operations are still continuing, that is our focus now but it will only run up to Saturday,” said Balilo.
Balilo said that the Coast Guard has deployed one vessel and a helicopter to conduct search and rescue operations.
Lacierda added the government is extending assistance to the fishermen who were left in the open sea by the foreign ship (initially identified as Hong Kong-registered MV Peach Mountain) that rammed into their small fishing boat off the Bolinao waters last week.
Lacierda said the injured fishermen identified as Herman Balmores, 51, Edemio Balmores Jr., 40, and Marcelino Damian, 32 were given P5,000 each as well as family food packs. The wife of Christopher Carbonel, who died of hypothermia after the collision, was given P10,000 in burial assistance and family food pack.
Families of the fishermen who remain missing also reportedly got help from the government.
Asked how the government intends to deal with the incident that resulted in the death of one Filipino fisherman, critically injured four while another four remains missing, Lacierda said that the government is already studying legal options.
He also said that the government’s search team flying over the area where the sea collision took place rescued three Filipino fishermen. The rescued fishermen however are not related to the sea accident, even as Lacierda hinted on President Aquino’s optimism that the four missing fishermen from the wrecked local fishing boat would still be found alive by the team that was sent to look for them.
“The weather is always a concern. Precisely what happened in Bolinao where the banca… which was detached from the rope that was tied to a fish cage—it was a concern.”
Pressed for comments over the statement issued by Defense Undersecretary Benito Ramos who earlier hinted the sea collision as intentional, suddenly spoke on their initial findings apparently suggesting that the incident that killed one Filipino fisherman, injured four and had four others missing, as “accidental”, Lacierda said that the statement of the government-designated head of the National Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) was merely based on an affidavit executed by one of the survivors of the wrecked local fishing boat.
President Aquino’s spokesman also clarified that the investigation has yet to wrap-up findings from where the government would be able to determine the ship that figured in the collision, whether or not the collision was intentional, whether or not the Filipino fishermen from the boat wreckage were abandoned and the compelling factors that caused the tragedy.
“Let me clarify. The investigation is still ongoing—that’s confirmed. So, one thing is certain though, that the rope which they used to tie their fishing boat to a fish cage in the area was detached and that caused their boat to move towards the path of the ship. But, as to the identity of the vessel, that’s still ongoing. The investigation is still ongoing,” Lacierda said. Mario J. Mallari