Welfare of Pinoy seafarers a priority of gov’t – Locsin

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    FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. yesterday the Philippine government should take into consideration the welfare of some 400,000 Filipino seafarers in deciding on whether it should get involved in the reported harassment by China of a foreign tanker that passed through the Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal, in September.

    The Liberia-flagged Green Aura, manned by Filipino crewmen, was passing through the Shoal on September 30 when it was ordered by a Chinese warship to stay away.

    The tanker, headed by Filipino captain Manolo Ebora, proceeded after telling the Chinese ship they have the right to innocent passage and that the shoal belongs to the Philippines.

    The Chinese ship claimed the shoal is “under the jurisdiction of Chinese government” and deployed a coast guard vessel to follow the tanker which eventually veered away from the disputed shoal.

    Locsin, in a statement released by Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, said the Philippine government always prioritizes the interests and welfare of the majority of Filipinos when it makes a decision or take an action.

    “It is a Greek vessel of Greek ownership flying a Liberian flag of convenience which just happens to have a skipper of Philippine nationality. We stick our noses in, and 400,000 Filipino mariners get embroiled in a maritime issue about which our only interest is the safety of the parts of the crew who just happen to be Filipino and were not harmed,” he said.

    “Want the employment 400,000 Pinoy mariners to hang in the balance of the games an idiot native media likes to play? Now that’s harming their livelihoods. Direct quote please,” he added.

    Locsin made the statement after some netizens turned to social media and expressed their disappointment over Panelo’s pronouncement that the reported harassment by the Chinese of a Filipino-led foreign commercial vessel is not a concern of the Philippine government.

    Panelo’s statement was criticized by Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs, who said the statement may harm the Philippines’ foreign policy.

    Entertainment personality Ogie Diaz said Panelo should be conscious about the Filipinos who may be affected by his statement.

    Panelo, at the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Nation (ASEAN) Summit in Thailand, said the harassment of the foreign vessel was not a Philippine concern because the vessel involved is foreign-flagged.

    He, however, agreed with the statement of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that China should abide by international laws and should respect other countries if it wants to be respected.

    Batongbacal, in a tweet, said on Panelo’s statement: “This is just so wrong on several levels. When will someone stop Panelo from speaking out of turn on matters of foreign policy? Silence on CN assertion of `jurisdiction’ against a Greek vessel, a third party, is effectively a sign of acquiescence to such jurisdiction before such third party; and in this case, due to publicity, effectively before the whole world.”

    “This is like saying that the Philippines is not concerned that China exercises jurisdiction over Scarborough against any other State. It’s like a person not caring that his house is being managed by someone else who claims to be the owner, and makes other people recognize he is the real owner,” he added.

    He pointed out that even if the ship that was allegedly harassed is a Greek vessel, the government should still be concerned because foreign-flagged ships are crucial in the country’s international trade.

    “Even if it is Greek vessel, it should be our concern, because PH relies on foreign-flagged vessels for international trade. Only 101 ships are registered with the PH flag today; our international trade is carried by foreign ships like this one flagged with Greece,” he said.

    FREEDOM OF THE SEAS

    Batongbacal said the freedom of the seas, including seamless navigation through all maritime zones is a concern of all maritime trading nations, especially an archipelagic State like the Philippines.”

    “China’s actions undermine this freedom, and thus, over the long term, threatens the Philippines’ maritime rights and interests,” he added.

    Since President Duterte came into power in 2016, there has been a shift in the government’s policy to China, with Duterte being friendlier to Beijing than the past administration.

    He also temporarily set aside the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated Beijing’s massive claims in the South China Sea.

    But his stance did not prevent nor stop China from pursuing its military build-up in the disputed waters, which includes the construction of military facilities and the installation of weapon systems. – With Ashzel Hachero