Aquino Downplays China Threat

BONGABONG, Oriental Mindoro - President Benigno S. Aquino III Sunday expressed doubt that China will engage in military offensives against the Philippines over the disputed Panatag (Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough) Shoal.

The President dismissed the hostile remarks of China, as carried in their local media, against the country as a product of ''metaphoric speech'' and might not be the Chinese's actual intention.

''I think if you read the different headlines in People's Daily are more controversial. One report said to be 'prepared to hear the sound of canons,' etcetera. But it's a question of style. They are fond of those figure of speech, their words are metaphoric. We don't think that at this point in time that they will engage in any military activities,'' the President said at a press conference here.

Aquino, who participated in the harvest of crabs and bangus (milkfish) here, maintained that the country's actions are geared towards de-escalating the tension at Panatag Shoal.

A Chinese general reportedly urged ''decisive action'' against the Philippines to assert their nation's claim over the shoal. People's Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan, in a commentary published by a state-owned website, claimed that China has not abandoned the idea of war to protect its interests.

''It is clear that it is to nobody's benefit and there are a lot of repercussions if any military force happens to be employed here. So we think that is more a statement that lacks substance. This not indicative or the real intentions,'' he said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) disclosed that another ''bullying'' by a Chinese vessel on two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships occurred yesterday morning near Panatag (Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough) Shoal.

Quoting a report from Vice Admiral Edmund Tan, PCG Commandant, the DFA said the incident transpired during the turnover of the area between the PCG ships ''BRP Pampanga 003'' and ''BRP Edsa 002'' around 9 a.m.

The Chinese vessel ''FLEC 310'' approached a stationary BRP Pampanga 003 from her left bow heading towards her, then at 600 yards veered away crossing past the right side of the PCG ship at a speed of 20.3 knots.

Again, at around 9:15 a.m., FLEC 310 passed by BRP Edsa 002 from her right to the left at a distance of 200 yards and speed of 20.6 knots.

Tan said in these instances, the speeding FLEC 310 generated a 2-meter wave in her wake but no damage was inflicted to the two ships which did not react to the ''bullying'' by the Chinese vessel.

The PCG chief said the actions of the Chinese vessel were properly documented.

The BRP 003 departed the area at 9:25 a.m. to ''reprovision'' in Manila, Tan added.

The DFA stressed that these maneuvers by the Chinese vessel posed a danger to the PH vesselwhich could mean a violation of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions of Ships at Sea (COLREGs).

Earlier, the President said the government is documenting the actions taken by China to build the country's case before the international tribunal.

Aquino added he has an ''overriding instruction'' to local authorities to avoid aggravating the situation at the Panatag Shoal.

''But we are documenting everything that is possible to be documented so that when we make our case in the appropriate body, we have the necessary evidence,'' he said.

For Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, the Philippines should keep reaching out to its allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for support against the bullying tactics of China over their territories and not rely heavily US assistance.

Speaking over DZBB radio, Santiago said the DFA should bear in mind that the US also ''owes China big time'' which must explain why American officials choose to be ''mum'' over the stand-off issue.

Thus, she said the government should push for the early adoption of a binding code of Conduct in the South China Sea and get its allies in the ASEAN to agree with it.

''We should have a binding regional Code...We must keep telling our ASEAN friends that today, China is doing this to us, tomorrow, it will be you,'' Santiago said.

For the meantime, the DFA should assert the Philippines claim over Panatag Shoal. Santiago said the Senate could adopt a resolution affirming the country's sovereignty over the shoal which the DFA can convey to China.

''That is how the game is played: You have to keep asserting your rights. It's important to keep asserting one's rights at every turn,'' Santiago said.

China's main objective, she observed is not to claim the Scarborough Shoal as part of its territory but to ''beat other nations , particularly the Southeast Asian nations and other nations in Asia, in exploiting the natural resources in those seas.''

''China is proposing that we jointly exploit the area but only China has the technology to do that. So the DFA should not lose sight that China wants to beat us on this,'' said the senator who is set to assume her seat at the International Court of Justice anytime soon.

''China would not fire at us because it would be condemned by the world. The US, for its part, has not said anything against China because they both just want to exploit our marine resource and energy deposits,'' Santiago said.

Philippine officials should not pin much hope on the upcoming Washington meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Javier Colmenares warned President Aquino that bilateral talks between Philippines and the United States concerning its on-going diplomatic tiff with China could result to expanded US intervention in the country may only provoke China to launch a ''limited shooting war'' in the disputed territory.

Instead of resorting to the bilateral talks with US, the Aquino government must act immediately to submit the controversy before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) despite China's reported decision to snub the proceedings.

''Surely, the ICJ or ITLOS has at least the moral authority to encourage China to go to the tribunal to resolve the dispute peacefully. Refusal by China to heed the advice of these bodies would put it at a defensive and may dampen its saber-rattling in the Scarborough Shoals'' said Colmenares.

Philippine Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) Libran Cabactulan has been asked to intensify efforts to muster support from the international community against China's supposed invasion of the shoal.

Alyansa ng mga Grupong Haligi ng Agham at Teknolohiya para sa Mamamayan (AGHAM) party-list Rep. Angelo Palmones said Cabactulan must exhaust all means to seek support from ally-nations.

''Our Permanent Ambassador to the UN must double his effort to bring the Scarborough issue to all fora in Geneva. This is the best offensive that we can do to confront a giant aggressor,'' he said.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said there have been some countries who already expressed support to the Philippines' firm stance on asserting its sovereignty over the shoal.

Ang Kasangga Rep. Teodorico Haresco has also urged government to drop any attempt to call in the Americans, saying that the US cannot be expected to declare war against China because of the Americans' huge economic interest in China.

''Let's boycott Chinese products. We will suffer. We will be in pain as some 25 percent of our economy is China-based,'' the partylist lawmaker said.

Colmenares said China may be ill-advised to launch full scale war against the Philippines but ''it is capable of launching a limited shooting war in the'' Shoal to test Filipinos determination to defend their territory, citing a 2005 Chinese attack on Vietnamese forces in the Paracels.

But he warned that in the event the US intervenes, Washington may want to get more from Manila in return.

''If America intervenes, it will only escalate the tension, and worse, we could end up with ousting one bully only to be replaced by another bully, the US,'' the Bayan Muna solon said. (With reports from Charissa M. Luci, Hannah L. Torregoza, and Ben R. Rosario)