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Panatag island in the news

The Philippine Navy sent a new Beechcraft King C90 aircraft on a Maritime Air Patrol surveillance flight over Panatag Island in the South China Sea west of Zambales last Wednesday. It flew about 800 feet above sea level and saw four Filipino fishing boats and nine Chinese vessels around the island.

The Philippine pilots reported they heard no challenge from the Chinese Coast Guard. Previous American flights and vessels passing close to some islands in the South China Sea have been ordered off by the Chinese who claim sovereignty over most of the sea. Their claim includes Panatag, although it is only 230 kilometers west of Zambales and, therefore, within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The absence of a challenge to the Philippine Navy flight was a good sign for us, considering China’s consistent protests against passing American ships and planes, including the USS Hopper which sailed within 22 kilometers of Panatag only last week. But the Philippine pilots also reported seeing nine Chinese vessels around Panatag — four were Chinese Coast Guard ships, one was a fishing vessel, and four were described as unknown vessels.

The Arbitral Court in the Hague ruled in 2016 against China’s claim to the South China Sea, as marked by a nine-dash line looping south from China’s Hainan island, down to Borneo, then up along western Philippines. President Duterte chose to follow a policy of friendship and economic cooperation with China, rather than confrontation.

The President stressed that while the Philippines stands by the Arbitral Court ruling, now is not the time to press our claims and risk a war with China. We are benefitting today from that policy, but we hope it will not lead to our losing any of our claims in the South China Sea.

Panatag is a key point of these claims. A map of the Philippine islands, then under Spanish colonial rule, was published in Manila in 1734 by Jesuit priest Pedro Murillo Velarde. The old map shows an island west of Zambales identified as Panacot, which is now Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal. But China calls it Huangyan and it lies at the eastern-most border claimed by China with its nine-dash line.

The four Chinese Coast Guard vessels spotted by the Philippine Navy plane may have been guarding the fishing vessel while asserting China’s claim to Panatag. As for the four “unknown vessels,” they could perhaps be exploring for possible minerals. Or carrying tourists. Or are construction vessels like the ones that built the runways and other installations on other reefs in the South China Sea.

We must cling to the hope that President Duterte‘s good neighbor policy is the best under the circumstances, that a Code of Conduct planned for the South China Sea will take care of all problems, and that Panatag will remain open to our fishermen and in our maps of these Philippine islands.