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Opinion

Chinese navy ‘spied on’ PH-US drills in Palawan

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

The Chinese navy trespassed Palawan inner waters during joint Philippine-US military exercises there. People’s Liberation Army-Navy electronic reconnaissance warship 792 lingered east of Palawan on Jan. 29-Feb. 1. Ongoing in the area then, Jan. 27-Feb. 2, were amphibious drills of US Marines with Filipino soldiers.

“Suspicion is that the spy ship was shadowing the activity,” retired general Edilberto Adan told The STAR. The dates cannot just be coincidence, said the former secretariat head of the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement. PLAN 792 is of Dongdiao class, a missile-tracking electronic surveillance vessel.

The warship was not on “innocent passage” since it did not stick to a straight path, former Phil. Navy chief Adm. Alexander Pama added. It even stopped for two days, he quoted defense sources.

China violated Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, said former Philippine Fleet Commandant Adm. Rommel Jude Ong. “Mere loitering breached our territory,” he explained.

Article 19 allows foreign vessels to pass through a State’s territorial seas. But it prohibits “collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State.” Also “launching, landing or taking on board any military device” like drones. And “carrying out research or survey.”

Foreign vessels may pass through inner Philippine waters under the Archipelagic Sea Lanes Act. Included is a narrow passageway south to north between Palawan and Panay that exits through Mindoro Strait to the West Philippine Sea. It intersects another passageway from Balabac Strait south of Palawan to Surigao Strait in northeast Mindanao, to and from West Philippine Sea and the Pacific. Vessels must keep within the width of the sea lanes, set in longitude and latitude. They must first seek permission to sail through, on a straight path, and stop only for emergency or to seek help.

The US exercises with the AFP jumped off from Brooke’s Point in southeast Palawan and covered both sides of the first passageway. Participating were the AFP Western Command based in Puerto Princesa City and the West Mindanao Command based in Zamboanga City. Purpose: interoperability of troops, communication, vessels, equipment, armaments.

It is “usual” for navies to monitor others’ war games, but in open seas. “China is known to keenly observe Philippine-US drills in our WPS exclusive economic zone up to 200 miles from shore,” said Jay Batongbacal, PhD, international maritime law. “But this is different. Pambabastos ito. PLAN 792 broke UNCLOS and domestic laws.” Worse than barging into the 12-mile outer territorial waters of the Philippines, it sneaked into internal waters and veered away from the designated archipelagic sea lane.

Philippine Navy patrol BRP Antonio Luna challenged the Chinese spy ship and ordered it to leave. Still the intruder ventured northeast to the Cuyo islands of Palawan. Days later, tailed by BRP Antonio Luna, it turned west to Apo Reefs and exited via Mindoro Strait.

Weather was clear around Palawan and Panay that week of Jan. 27-Feb. 2. If PLAN 792 needed to pass south to north of Palawan, it could have traversed the WPS. But entering Balabac Strait, it should have exited to the Pacific via Surigao Strait. Yet it strayed from the straight path and turned to the passageway east of Palawan, despite no medical or engine emergency. By exiting in Mindoro Strait, it in effect traversed three sides of the rectangle bordering Palawan.

“It is an affront on our sovereignty,” said Adan, trustee of the Council on Foreign Relations and former superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy. He expressed the concern of other retired generals in the Advocates for National Interest, which he chairs.

Despite murmurs since early February about the intrusion, Defense officials kept mum. On Monday, March 14, the Dept. of Foreign Affairs summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian: “Desist from entering Philippine waters uninvited and without permission.” China committed an “illegal incursion” and disrespected Philippine territory and maritime jurisdiction, Foreign Undersecretary Ma. Theresa Lazaro said.

PLAN 792 did not inform authorities of intention to pass through, Lazaro said. She cited Article 52 of UNCLOS that pertains to temporary suspension of passage along archipelagic sea lanes for state security after due publication.

“Was that the first and the last incursion?” Rep. Jericho Nograles asked. “Why is it only through a DFA statement that Congress is hearing about this? Were they hiding it?”

The Philippine Navy, Coast Guard and PNP Maritime Command are obliged to report to Congress, even in a confidential manner, any incursions and threats to the Republic, Nograles said. Those armed services are under the Departments of National Defense, Transportation, and Interior and Local Government, respectively.

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