By Daniel Llanto
FilAm Star Correspondent
Malacañang dismissed the reported harassment of a Filipino-manned Greek commercial vessel near Scarborough Shoal by a Chinese navy warship as not a concern of the Philippines to the dismay of maritime law experts who said it’s a sign of acquiescence to China’s assertion of jurisdiction over the disputed territory.
One such maritime law expert, Director Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said on Twitter that “silence on China’s assertion of ‘jurisdiction’ against a Greek vessel, a third party, is effectively a sign of acquiescence to such jurisdiction before such third party and in this case, due to publicity, effectively before the whole world.”
The Filipino captain of the Liberian-registered oil tanker “Green Aura” was reportedly challenged by Chinese coast guard vessels near Scarborough Shoal last September 30. The ship was manned by some 20 Filipinos.
The Chinese vessel reportedly ordered the commercial ship to change its course because they were in “Chinese territory.”
Green Aura captain Manolo Ebora said they were transiting from Nongyao, Thailand to Longkou, China when they steered the commercial ship near Scarborough Shoal off Masinloc, Zambales.
However, their transit was interrupted by a Chinese vessel, which introduced itself as a “Chinese naval warship,” commanded them to alter their course as they were supposedly in Chinese waters, he added.
The disputed Scarborough Shoal, a small ring of reefs, is located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China took control of the shoal in 2012 after a stand-off, which later prompted Manila to file a case against Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The 2016 arbitral ruling declared the shoal as a common fishing ground and Beijing’s all-encompassing nine-dash line claims over the South China Sea is not valid. But China ignored the ruling and continues to control the shoal up to this day.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the incident should not concern the Philippines as the ship was a “foreign vessel, only manned by a Filipino captain.”
“Well, for as long as they do not touch a Philippine ship or vessel, it would be the concern of that country that carries the flag of that particular vessel,” he said.
Batongbacal said Panelo’s remarks is almost like implying that the Philippines is not concerned that 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,” he said.
“When will someone stop Panelo from speaking out of turn on matters of foreign policy?” he added.
Even if it was a foreign vessel, the maritime expert said it was important as the Philippines relies on foreign-flagged vessels for international trade.
“Only 101 ships are registered with the PH flag today. Our international trade is carried by foreign ships like this one flagged with Greece,” he pointed out.
“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 Philippines.
China’s actions undermine this freedom and thus over the long term, threatens Philippine maritime interests,” he added.
The Palace official also said that if the government invokes its sovereignty to protest the incident, it will be putting “at risk the employment of more than 400,000 deployed Filipino seafarers and mariners by sending a message to shipping companies of our country’s inclination to interfere into their maritime affairs for the sole reason that a Filipino is under their employ.”
Panelo also claimed that “there was no threat to the lives of our countrymen despite the ship captain’s engaging in retorts about an issue sensitive to our foreign relations concerning our seas.”
“In this particular instance, invoking our state’s dominion is unnecessary,” he stressed.