Some of the vessels are believed to be militia ships disguised as fishing boats.
File
Philippines protests ‘illegal’ presence of Chinese ships around Pag-asa
Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - April 5, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — With hundreds of Chinese vessels swarming around Pag-asa Island, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is calling China’s attention to their “illegal” presence and “clear violation” of Philippine sovereignty.

“The presence of Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa and other maritime features in the KIG is illegal,” the DFA said in a statement. KIG stands for Kalayaan Island Group, which includes Pag-asa.

Some of the vessels are believed to be militia ships disguised as fishing boats.

“Such actions are a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, as defined under international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the DFA added in a rare rebuke.

“Such actions when not repudiated by the Chinese government are deemed to have been adopted by it.”

Earlier, Malacañang said the DFA is preparing to protest the massive presence of Chinese vessels around Pag-asa, which is part of Palawan.

The DFA stressed Pag-asa Island is part of KIG, an integral part of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

“We call on concerned parties to desist from any action and activity that contravenes the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), as these generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty, and threatens regional peace and stability,” the DFA said.

The Philippines is calling for a full and effective implementation of the DOC while negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea are ongoing, the DFA said.  

“We cannot emphasize enough the imperative to build and promote mutual trust and confidence, to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities; and to avoid actions that may further complicate the situation and undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” it added.

With the presence of numerous Chinese vessels around Pag-asa now confirmed, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said filing a diplomatic protest is the right thing to do.

“To preserve our sovereignty over our territorial sea around Pag-asa, the (Philippines) should file a diplomatic protest. Otherwise, the Philippines will be deemed to have acquiesced to China’s claim that the waters around Pag-asa belong to China under its nine-dash line claim,” he said in a statement.

The senior SC magistrate stressed that Chinese fishing vessels have no right to fish within the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea of the island, which is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government.

“They can only exercise innocent passage in our territorial sea – meaning these vessels must transit in a straight, continuous and expeditious passage. These vessels cannot stop, loiter or even zigzag in our territorial sea,” he explained.

The SC magistrate likewise called for the filing of diplomatic protests over Beijing’s seizure of Sandy Cay and two low-tide sandbars, which he said are also within the country’s territorial waters.

“Sandy Cay, a high-tide sandbar, and two nearby low-tide sandbars, are less than two nautical miles from Pag-asa. These sandbars emerged within our 12-nautical-mile territorial sea in Pag-asa. Anything that emerges within our territorial sea is also our territory. That is well-recognized under international law,” he pointed out.

Carpio warned that if the country fails to file the protests, it “will be deemed to have acquiesced” to Beijing.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said a diplomatic protest is being readied after the military confirmed the presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island.

Beijing’s Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said those were merely fishing vessels, but Panelo said they were militia boats.

DFA chief Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had filed a “salvo” of diplomatic notes against China before his trip to Beijing in March. He refused to disclose to the public the contents of the diplomatic notes.

Commitment to self-restraint

Despite concerns over the large presence of Chinese boats around Pag-asa, the fourth Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea ended on a positive note in Manila, with both countries reaffirming their commitment to exercise self-restraint in their activities in the South China Sea to make sure disputes don’t escalate and threaten peace and stability in the region.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Meynardo Montealegre of the Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs led the Philippine delegation. Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou led the Chinese representatives to the meeting.

“In a frank yet cordial and constructive manner, both sides raised specific issues and recent developments and actions in the South China Sea which have raised concerns to either side, and proposed ways to address them in a cooperative manner,” the DFA said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon.

“Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate and to continue to find ways forward to strengthen mutual trust and confidence,” the DFA said.

While contentious issues in the South China Sea should not be ignored, the DFA reiterated they should not be considered the sum total of Philippines-China relations and should not stop the two countries from exploring mutually beneficial cooperation in other fields.

Both sides also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting regional peace and stability, freedom of navigation and over-flight.

They likewise reiterated their commitment to address disputes through peaceful means, without resorting to threat or use of force – specifically through friendly consultations and negotiations between sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations charter and the 1982 UNCLOS.

Both sides likewise agreed that their bilateral relations should serve the interests of the Filipino and Chinese peoples and contribute to peace, stability and development in the region, the DFA added.

“Both sides had a productive exchange of views on ways to enhance maritime cooperation in areas such as on recent developments in the South China Sea carrying political and security implications, maritime search and rescue, maritime safety, marine environmental protection/marine scientific research and fisheries in relevant working group meetings under the framework of the BCM,” it said.

The DFA said the two governments exchanged views on oil and gas development without prejudice to their respective positions on sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

They also agreed to maintain the positive momentum of negotiations for the adoption of a COC in the South China Sea, based on consensus.

The Fifth Meeting of the BCM will be held in China in the second half of this year, with the exact date and venue to be announced later.

Guerrilla warfare

Meanwhile, UP law professor and expert in maritime affairs Jay Batongbacal said China is basically launching guerrilla warfare at sea as the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) watch helplessly.

“That is real dilemma now to the defense department and Armed Forces. They were not designed to confront this kind of tactics. It’s basically like a guerrilla warfare at sea… and they are now confronted by this kind of possibilities,” Batongbacal said in an ANC interview yesterday. Batongbacal is director of the university’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

He added this could be the reason for Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s vigorously pushing for a review of the country’s defense treaty with the United States.

Batongbacal also said the Chinese vessels could be monitoring or possibly trying to slow down ongoing repair and renovation works on Pag-asa Island.

Lorenzana, meanwhile, has downplayed the convergence of Chinese ships around Pag-asa.

“Oh, they have been watching us for a long time but our projects are proceeding and will continue until completed. They are not interfering,” Lorenzana said in a statement from the US. 

Batongbacal said the AFP appeared to be no longer intimidated by the presence of Chinese militia ships.

“So I think they reached a certain point already with those tactics. So that is why we are now at a kind of stalemate but we are not reacting to them so we were able to continue on what we are doing in Pag-asa Island,” Batongbacal said.

The defense department is building a beaching ramp on the island for large navy cargo ships for easier unloading of construction materials needed for the repairs of military facilities including Rancudo Airfield.

Construction of a safe harbor, a project of the local government, is nearing completion. With Helen Flores, Edu Punay, Jaime Laude, AP

CHINESE VESSELS DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
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