Latest surveillance reports last Friday (July 6) reveal that although Chinese fishermen have left the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, at least three Chinese maritime vessels remain in the area.
The three vessels have been identified as two Chinese surveillance vessels and one Fisheries and Law Enforcement Command ship, estimated at two nautical miles east of Panatag Shoal.
However, the report said that no new structures were observed and no Chinese fishing vessels were seen within the shoal or its vicinity.
But prior to last Friday’s aerial surveillance, still spotted in the Panatag Shoal were at least 25 Chinese fishing vessels and boats.
Our country used to have two vessels facing off with Chinese ships, but said vessels pulled out upon the orders of President Benigno Aquino III.
To help in monitoring the situation in the disputed waters around the Spratly Islands, the Philippines may resort to asking the United States to deploy spy planes, Aquino said on Monday (July 2). However, reports said doing so could worsen tensions with Asian giant China.
In a statement last month, China revealed it had started “combat-ready” patrols in the disputed waters.
Last June 25, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that the two countries had a verbal agreement to pull out ships from the lagoon area but not the wider vicinity of the shoal. The next day, 23 Chinese boats and ships were present inside the lagoon, the Philippine Navy reported.
But despite the continued presence of Chinese ships in the shoal, Malacañang has yet to completely decide whether to send back Philippine ships to the disputed waters.
A standoff ensued in April after Chinese maritime surveillance ships stopped the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen, who were engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of various endangered species.
China even released a travel policy prohibiting Chinese citizens to travel to the Philippines, following said standoff and tension.
Panatag Shoal is situated 124 nautical miles from the closest base point in Zambales. It is within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines as provided by international laws.
Filipino fishermen will be permitted to return in the shoal starting July 15.