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Gov't transparency on West Philippine Sea a 'positive thing' amid strategy change, says analyst

A man walks past a map of the Philippines and it's archipelagic waters during a budget meeting in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. Two Filipino security officials say China has deployed its navy and coast guard ships in a cluster of uninhabited sandbars in the disputed South China Sea amid concerns that the Philippines may build structures on them in an emerging territorial issue that the government stated was quickly resolved. The Chinese presence sparked concerns in Manila but Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said without elaborating that the issue has been resolved. AP/Aaron Favila

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte and Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano remain silent on the government's actions regarding the disputed West Philippine Sea so as not to upset Beijing.

The Philippines' top diplomat earlier assured the public that despite the lack of details disclosed, the Filipino people will be informed if there is an alarming situation in the disputed waters.

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), said that Duterte and Cayetano believe that informing the public about everything that happens in the disputed waters would provoke criticism and may upset Beijing.

"They are certainly correct on both counts. Their strategy is based upon helping China avoid such criticism in the hopes that Beijing will reward the Philippines with concessions," Poling told Philstar.com.

READ: Cayetano cites 'change' of South China Sea strategy

AMTI, a Washington-based think tank which has been publishing satellite imagery showing China's activities in the West Philippine Sea, has a different perspective on the Duterte administration's change in strategy on asserting the country's sovereignty.

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Poling said there is no evidence that China plans to make concessions over maritime disputes unless Beijing is convinced by international pressure.

"We also think that transparency is a positive thing and helps all sides avoid accidental escalations and make better-informed policy," Poling said.

Chinese flag planted near Kota Island

Meanwhile, Poling noted that the reported erection of a Chinese flag on a sandbar near Philippines-controlled Kota Island in the West Philippine Sea would not be as damaging to Filipino interests as long as it will not be followed by an actual occupation of the feature.

Earlier this week, Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano claimed that a Chinese flag mounted on a steel pipe was discovered around the third week of July near Kota Island.

Poling, however, said that it would be impossible to independently confirm if such incident occurred.

"If it did, it would certainly be provocative, but as long as it is not followed by any actual occupation of the feature, then it is not nearly as damaging to Filipino interests as other things that Chinese forces are doing—for instance placing restrictions on freedom of the seas throughout the nine-dash line," he said.

He added that Chinese ships have been fishing near Philippines-occupied Pag-asa Island but Filipino ships cannot operate near Chinese-controlled features without being driven away.

Poling warned that the recent developments in the disputed West Philippine Sea or South China Sea may be an indication that China is asserting its historic rights in the region.

"Who knows what the next provocation will be. But the longer-term trend is clear—more Chinese ships and planes asserting China’s 'historic rights' to all the resources of the South China Sea and restricting the rights of Southeast Asian claimants and others to operate as allowed by international law," Poling said.

RELATED: No budget proposal for West Philippine Sea yet, says DFA

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