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UPDATED Bajo de Masinloc story with DFA clarificationChinese vessels in Bajo de Masinloc down to 3

By Michaela del Callar

MANILA, July 27 -– The number of Chinese vessels in the Bajo de Masinloc in the West Philippine Sea has gone down to three as of July 25, the Department of Foreign Affairs said on Friday.

From nearly a hundred in the past months, only two Chinese maritime surveillance ships and one fisheries and law enforcement command vessel were spotted outside Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal off Zambales province during a Philippine Navy reconnaissance flight, DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

No other vessels were monitored inside the shoal’s lagoon since Wednesday, Hernandez said.

“There are no more fishing vessels seen inside the lagoon. Hopefully they don’t add some more ships there,” Hernandez told a press briefing.

Bajo de Masinloc, a U-shaped rock formation with a sprawling lagoon teeming with rich maritime resources, has been at the center of a raging territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.

China, however, continues to block Philippines vessels from entering the sprawling lagoon with a net barrier held up by buoys from end to end, Hernandez said.

Bajo de Masinloc falls within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, China is asserting ownership over it on the basis of historical rights.

UNCLOS, the only existing international legal maritime treaty, gives coastal states the right to develop, explore and exploit areas up to 200-nautical miles from its shores — waters the U.N. treaty calls EEZ of a country like the Philippines.

The UN accord was signed by the Philippines, China and 162 other nations.

According to the DFA, an agreement was made in “good faith” between the two sides for the simultaneous pullout of all vessels inside the shoal last June 4.

Manila complied but China reneged on its commitment and has since continued to beef up its presence in the area. China also continued to defy Manila’s demand for it to remove its blockades at the shoal’s entrance.

The two Asian nations have been locked in a dangerous standoff at the shoal for more than three months that began on April 10 when ships from Beijing prevented Philippine authorities from accosting Chinese fishermen poaching in the area situated 124 nautical miles from Manila’s nearest coastal town of Masinloc, Zambales.

The standoff temporarily ended when President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered the withdrawal of the last two Philippine government vessels facing off with several Chinese ships on July 15 due to bad weather.

Philippine and Chinese diplomats have resolved to end the disputes peacefully as Manila reiterated its call on Beijing to respect Manila’s sovereignty over Bajo de Masinloc.

China also claims the disputed West Philippine Sea or South China Sea nearly in its entirety.

The long-simmering territorial rifts in the West Philippines Sea involves four Association of Southeast Asian Nations members – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

China and Taiwan are also involved in the disputes, which have long been feared as Asia’s next potential flashpoint for a major armed conflict.

Beijing virtually claims the whole of South China Sea, which is dotted by clusters of islands, bays, shoals and reefs and teem with rich fishing areas. The vast sea is also believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and is regarded as among the world’s most strategic and busiest waterways. (PNA) CTB/MDC/rsm

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