Chinese ship stays put for 10 days
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—The municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan province has raised the alarm over the long stay of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel near Pag-asa Island (international name: Thitu Island) on the Philippine side of the Spratly archipelago last week.
Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. told reporters in Puerto Princesa that the 100-meter-long Chinese vessel showed up on Nov. 9 and stayed 7 kilometers from Pag-asa.
In a telephone interview with the Inquirer in Manila, Bito-onon said the vessel stayed for 10 days and left on Nov. 18,
the day the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit opened, with President Aquino playing host to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the leaders of 19 other Pacific Rim economies.
Used to the sight of Chinese warships passing by, residents on Pag-asa were not alarmed when the vessel showed up, Bito-onon said.
“We’re used to them … They’re probably just observing,” he said.
He said life went on for the residents of the island even with the Chinese vessel, with bow number 2305 nearby.
“We continue to unload construction materials that we need for people to build or repair their homes, the supplies we need for Christmas until the New Year, our food, everything,” Bito-onon said.
But the vessel’s presence, he said, was unusual, as Chinese ships normally just passed by the island and from farther distances.
“We don’t know what they were doing there. We couldn’t [go] near [it] to check,” Bito-onon said.
And this was the longest that a Chinese Coast Guard ship stayed—10 days—and quite near to Pag-asa, one of the islands, reefs and shoals in the Spratlys that China claims as parts of its territory in the South China Sea.
“It’s the first time in my 18 years on Pag-asa Island that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel came this close to us, and actually stayed for more than a week. They usually just passed by,” Bito-onon said.
Pag-asa is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) that the Philippines protects with military installations from other claimants in the South China Sea.
Kalayaan includes Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), Likas (West York Island), Parola (North East Cay), Lawak (Nanshan Island), Kota Island (Loita Island), Patag (Flat Island), Panata Island (Lankiam Island), Balagtas (Irving Reef) and Rizal (Commodore Reef).
Pag-asa is the biggest island in the group and the only one with a community. It has an airstrip, a five-bed lying-in clinic and a small elementary school.
With a weak military, the Philippines has no muscle to keep China out of its territory in the Spratlys.
Instead, the Philippines took its territorial dispute with China to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration, asking the tribunal to invalidate China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea.
China has boycotted the proceedings, insisting on bilateral negotiations to settle the dispute.
The court has agreed to hear the Philippine case despite China’s absence. It will hear oral arguments on the case from
Nov. 24 to 30.
It means ‘many things’
A government official with a deep background in the South China Sea dispute told the Inquirer that the Chinese Coast Guard vessel’s presence at Pag-asa “means many things.”
These include “pushing the envelope, disrupting the status quo and trying to expand their creeping invasion,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The source added that definitely, 7 km from Pag-asa Island is still within the Philippines’ “territorial waters.”
The Inquirer tried to reach officials at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command for comment, but received no reply.
In Manila, Col. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the military, said the AFP was still verifying reports about the intrusion of the Chinese vessel.
Col. Noel Detoyato, chief of the AFP public affairs office, declined to comment, saying the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was in a better position to comment on the matter.
There was no immediate comment from the DFA Thursday.
Keeping row out of Apec
On Nov. 10, President Aquino met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Malacañang ahead of the Apec summit and they agreed that the Philippines would not bring up the South China Sea dispute during the gathering.
Government spokespersons said the decision was made because the Philippines had already taken the dispute to the UN arbitral tribunal and Apec “was not the proper forum” to bring it up.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, where China is reclaiming land on reefs to build artificial islands and bolster its expansive claim to the strategic waterway through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
‘Bold steps’ needed
On Wednesday, President Aquino and US President Barack Obama agreed that “bold steps” were needed to ease tensions in the South China Sea.
The two leaders also discussed how China’s island-building in the contested waters affected regional stability.
Obama also called on China to stop “further reclamation, new construction and militarization” in the South China Sea. With a report from Julie M. Aurelio in Manila
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