Manila: The Philippines scrambled vessels to retrieve a frigate that ran aground near a disputed area, as China’s Coast Guard also rushed to the scene.
The Del Pilar was conducting a routine patrol on Wednesday evening when it ran aground in Hasa-Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal, referred to as “Banyue Jiao”) just 60 nautical miles off Palawan province.
According to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) public affairs office chief Col. Noel Detoyato, a Philippine Navy team was expected to board the stricken vessel on Saturday to survey the extent of damage suffered by the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar.
Two Philippine Coast Guard vessels rushed to the scene to aid the ship while the BRP Nestor Reinoso, a patrol gunboat, was close by, Detoyato said.
Hasa Hasa is located at the eastern edge of the Spratlys in the South China Sea. It is a reef whose ownership is disputed by the Philippines and China.
China claims it is within its so-called Nine-Dash Line, an imaginary demarcation covering more than half of the area in the South China Sea up to the Sea of Japan. The government in Beijing claims the sea territory as part of its historical rights.
The Philippines on the other hand, says Hasa Hasa and the sea territory, islets and reefs are within the country’s 240 nautical mile exclusive economic zone stipulated under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS).
After the vessel got stranded, China dispatched its Coast Guard to the scene.
“Nanhaijiu 115, specialised in maritime search and rescue, is also in nearby waters. China is discussing with the Philippines on the relevant search and rescue matters,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s said in a regular press briefing on August 31.
China has been wary of a repeat of the BRP Sierra Madre incident when the Philippine vessel ran aground in the Second Thomas Shoal, a coral outcrop in the South China Sea located some 194 kilometres west of Palawan which ownership is also disputed with China as well as Vietnam.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asia specialist at Jinan University was quoted in an article by the South China Morning Post that Beijing needs to handle the situation cautiously.
He said that in March 2016 when a Philippine fishing boat was stranded on Jackson Atoll ships of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army-Navy blockaded the area. Chinese ships afterwards denied access to Filipino fishermen to the area.
“China can’t react in that kind of hard line way now — instability in the South China Sea would go against Beijing’s interests at a time when tensions are high with the United States, and also while bilateral relations with the [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte administration are positive,” Zhang said in the SCMP report.
The BRP Gregorio del Pilar grounding incident took place as the US Navy Ronald Reagan Strike Group and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Escort Flotilla 4 Battle Group are in the waters of the Philippines for bilateral training in the South China Sea.