MANILA, Philippines – Chinese coast guard vessels prevented members of a Filipino nationalist youth group from planting a Philippine flag on a rocky outcrop at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal last Sunday.
The incident between the Chinese and the Kalayaan Atin Ito movement (Freedom It’s Ours) took place as the country was commemorating Independence Day and just as foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries and China were preparing for a meeting in Kunming to discuss territorial rows in the hotly contested South China Sea.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and the move by the Filipino nationalists comes as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague prepares to deliver a ruling on a complex case brought by Manila that could dent China’s sweeping sovereignty claim.
“They refused to allow us to get near Scarborough Shoal,” Joy Ban-eg, leader of the Kalayaan Atin group, told reporters. “There was a standoff until we decided to leave.”
Ban-eg said 15 Filipinos and an American joined the 16-hour voyage to Panatag Shoal to mark the Philippines’ 118th Independence Day and to find out if local fishermen could freely go there.
No one was hurt among the volunteers during the “encounter,” Ban-eg said, adding their voyage to Panatag was part of a plan conceived a long time ago when the group was headed by incoming Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon. He did not join Sunday’s journey.
“This is the truth. Chinese have invaded us. We have been saying this long before. They have invaded the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), but they occupied first in 2012 Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag Shoal),” Ban-eg said.
In December last year, KAI also embarked on a voyage to Kalayaan Island Group to protest China’s occupation in the region, an action that triggered strong reactions from Beijing.
She warned China would eventually destroy Panatag Shoal through massive land reclamation.
The shoal, seized by China after a three-month standoff in 2012, is a bone of contention for the Philippines and its president-elect, Rodrigo Duterte, has vowed not to give way over the right of his country to sail there freely.
The attempt to plant the flag comes after Duterte himself pledged during his election campaign to do the same, but on China’s manmade islands in the Spratlys, using a jet ski.
The wooden-hulled fishing boat came close to shoal when China’s coastguard blocked them and ordered them to go back to the Philippines, the group said.
Five Filipinos jumped in the water and tried to swim to the shoal but were chased down by Chinese sailors on rubber dinghies who sprayed them with water and tried to take their cameras and bag, which contained a Philippine flag, they said.
Philippine defense and military officials declined to comment on the incident. Beijing stressed that the shoal belonged to China.
“The Scarborough Shoal has been China’s territory since ancient times,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing in Beijing.
“We urge the Philippines to respect China’s sovereignty and refrain from taking provocative actions.”
While it may have been patriotic for youth volunteers of KAI to raise a Philippine flag at the Panatag Shoal, their action may have also endangered their lives as well as those of Filipino fishermen in the area, a senior security official said yesterday.
The official, who declined to be named, also said the action might also adversely affect Manila’s arbitration case as well as the welfare of overseas Filipino workers in China.
“We admire their guts, but the group could have taken into consideration their own safety, and the safety of our fishermen before sailing to Panatag Shoal. What they’ve done could have triggered an open confrontation leading to a World War,” the security official said.
He said the country should now prepare for a possible backlash from KAI’s action at Panatag Shoal.
KAI uploaded on social networking sites a video of the voyage, including the cat-and-mouse chase with the Chinese. The group said despite harassment from the Chinese who sprayed them with pressurized water, the youth volunteers managed to enter the shoal and raise a Philippine flag on a rocky outcrop.
The video also showed KAI volunteers waving Philippine and United Nations flags while leaving the area on a fishing boat.
Col. Noel Detoyato, Armed Forces of the Philippines-Public Affairs Office (AFP-PAO) chief, declined to comment on the matter, saying the issue is within the domain of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). – With Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee-Brago