China now routinely sends ships to patrol and enforce its claim over Scarborough Shoal, a Philippine territory located just 220 kilometers from the coast of Zambales. In comparison, Panatag Reef, which is known internationally as Scarborough Shoal and Huangyan Island to Chinese, is more than 840 kilometers from the nearest shoreline of China.
Panatag Reef is just a group of rocks or small islands and reefs located west off Zambales, but it is a territory that belongs to the Philippines and giving it up to China is like giving the whole West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to the foreign invaders.
But the Chinese forces already occupy Panatag Reef, and their vessels have successfully shooed away Filipino fishermen’s boats from the area. As of July 2013, Chinese ships were spotted within the Philippine-claimed reef, despite the protest filed by the Philippines before the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) against China.
The Philippines exerted little effort to take back Panatag Reef though, and its excuse is that its defense capability is dwarfed by China’s. China has an annual defense budget of $115 billion, or about 100 times more than the Philippines’.
The Chinese takeover of Panatag Reef began in April 2012. On April 8 of that year, a Philippine Navy surveillance plane sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels on Scarborough shoal.
The Navy deployed BRP Gregorio del Pilar to survey the vicinity of the shoal, and confirmed the presence of the fishing vessels. On April 10, BRP Gregorio del Pilar inspected the catch of the fishing vessels and attempted to arrest the Chinese fishermen. However, Chinese maritime surveillance ships, China Marine Surveillance 75 (Zhongguo Haijian 75) and China Marine Surveillance 84 (Zhongguo Haijian 84), tried to block the arrest. Chinese vessels then maintained their presence in the area.
This means that Chinese occupation of the Panatag Reef began on April 10, after its surveillance vessels prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen in the area.
The Chinese surveillance ships also imposed a 24-kilometer wide ban on the fishing area around Panatag Reef, preventing Filipino fishermen from Zambales and Pangasinan from going near the territory. China also erected a barrier to the entrance of the Panatag Reef.
Aside from taking over Panatag Reef, Chinese forces also maintain a fleet near Ayungin Reef, which falls within Philippines’ exclusive economic (EEZ). Ayungin Reef is also known as the Second Thomas Shoal.
As of June 2013, the Philippine military said about 18 Chinese vessels were intruding into Philippine territory, in their bid to consolidate control over the West Philippine Sea.
China also has a military garrison in the Mischief Reef or Panganiban Reef, one of the areas belonging to the Philippines. It has a radar station in Subi Reef, an islet 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-Asa Island, which is part of Kalayaan Group of Islands west off Palawan.
The Philippines said it would “defend what is ours” but never confronted China in a military battle to contest its occupation of the Philippine islands.
All it could do is protest the “provocative and illegal presence” of the Chinese vessels. Manila, however, counts on its allies (former colonizers), the United States and Japan, to help defend its territory against China.
President Benigno Aquino III welcomes the installation of a 70-acre military base in Subic, Zambales, to host US and Japanese warships.
Japan, which occupied China and the Philippines, in the 1940s, is now also fighting the aggressive expansion of China. “The Japan side is very concerned that this kind of situation in the South China Sea could affect the situation in the East China Sea,” a Japanese defense official was quoted as saying.
President Aquino, being the emotional president who speaks his mind during a tense situation, made this claim. “There are only two strategic partners that we have—it is America and Japan.”