MANILA, Philippines — As reports of more than a hundred Chinese ships swarming around Pag-asa island emerged, the Department of Foreign (DFA) “fired off” a diplomatic protest – the second since the sinking in June of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese trawler.
“Diplomatic protest fired off,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted yesterday.
Locsin’s announcement came after National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. proposed that the government protest China’s incursion in the waters around Pag-asa.
When asked if he was adopting Esperon’s recommendation to file a diplomatic protest, Locsin said he did so already.
“I did. I listen only to military intelligence; I distrust civilian sources of ‘misinformation.’ When it comes to national security, I am the thinking trigger; the finger is the commander-in-chief and the Armed Forces which are the protector of people & state,” Locsin said.
Last June, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China over the ramming and sinking by a Chinese vessel of a Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank and leaving the fishermen floundering at sea.
At the weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Esperon said filing of a diplomatic protest is the right move.
“There are so many Chinese fishing vessels there. The newest… last July 24, 113 boats have been spotted and we are currently looking at it and I have recommended filing diplomatic action,” Esperon said.
Pag-asa Island, occupied by Filipino civilians and Marines, is the country’s biggest and most strategically important outpost in the West Philippine Sea.
Esperon, also chairman of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, cited a recent report showing 113 Chinese fishing vessels swarming around Pag-asa (Thitu) Island last July 24 and 61 in February this year.
A digital map presented by the former military chief, however, showed that most of the fishing vessels seemed to have retreated from the vicinity the other day, with only three spotted. But this was because of bad weather, he said.
“They have another island they retreat to – Subi (Zamora) Reef,” he said, explaining the government was unsure of the Chinese motivation behind the incursion.
“We want to read the minds of the People’s Liberation Army but we may not be correct all the time. Suffice it to say that we are aware of that… That’s why we need to strengthen our position (in areas) we are in possession,” said Esperon, apparently alluding to the confusion over President Duterte’s statement during his State of the Nation Address that China was in possession of the West Philippine Sea.
Some officials, including Esperon, claimed that what the President really said was “in position.”
Zamora (Subi) Reef in the West Philippine Sea is one of the land features reclaimed and fortified by China. It is closest to, and much bigger than, Pag-asa Island, and has its own airstrip.
The upgrading of Pag-asa Island and the repair of its eroded runway commenced last year.
A report from think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative found that the Chinese navy, coast guard and fishing vessels have been operating near Zamora Reef as early as July 2018, around the same time Pag-asa Island repairs started.
Esperon also downplayed China’s assurance that it would not initiate armed confrontation.
“Any country can say that… Of course they would say ‘we will not fire the first shot.’ Who will fire the first shot? What country would say that? No one. Same with us,” he said.
Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said on Monday at the 92nd anniversary celebration of the founding of the PLA that China is committed to peaceful approach to resolving the South China Sea issue and that it would only use its military for self defense.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a critic of President Duterte’s policy of appeasement toward China, welcomed the filing of diplomatic protest.
“(That’s) good because we should keep on protesting that. Otherwise, that is an implied admission that we allowed them to do that and we should not allow that,” Carpio told reporters in a chance interview during the Legal Education Summit.
Carpio explained that Pag-asa Island is part of the country’s territorial sea as affirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in its 2016 ruling on a case filed by Manila against Beijing.
“The tribunal said there is territorial sea around Pag-asa and all those fishing vessels of China cannot enter a territorial sea to loiter. If they want to pass through under innocent passage rule that means they have to pass in a continuous and expeditious straight line,” he explained.
“They cannot loiter, they are prohibited because it’s a territorial sea but what they are doing is they are loitering… They should get out of there,” he said.
The Supreme Court senior magistrate has persistently called on the Duterte administration to file protests against Chinese intrusion in the West Philippine Sea and seek enforcement of the PCA ruling.
Carpio also voiced support for the proposal of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that all ships passing through the country’s territorial sea be monitored and required to turn on their automatic identification system.
“I agree with Sec. Lorenzana. I think that should be the rule worldwide – that you should not turn off your AIS if you are passing through territorial sea – because you are actually exercising the right of innocent passage. So if you turn it off, you’re not acting innocently and you are hiding something,” he stressed.
Lorenzana, meanwhile, revealed that the Chinese ambassador had admitted the Chinese ships’ “mistake” of switching off their AIS while sailing inside Philippine territorial waters.
“He agreed with me when I discussed this matter with him that it was not right for their warships to put off their AIS to hide their presence to us,” Lorenzana said.
Since February, at least four Chinese warships had sailed through the waters between Sibuto island town and Bongao without giving prior notice to concerned Philippine authorities.
“I was assured by the ambassador that next time, that whenever their warships will be sailing through the country’s territorial waters, they will inform us,” Lorenzana said.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the right way to develop state-to-state relations is setting and observing rules and that “bullying practices and power politics will lead us nowhere.” – With Edu Punay, Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude
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