Critics rage against increased presence of China vessels
MANILA, Philippines — Two opposition senatorial candidates on Saturday called on the Duterte administration to protest against “aggressive moves” by China in the West Philippine Sea following reports of a surge in the presence of Chinese vessels in waters close to the biggest island occupied by Filipinos in the disputed waters.
The military’s Western Command (Wescom) on Thursday reported that more than 600 Chinese vessels had been monitored since January near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, one of nine islets and shoals occupied by Filipino forces west of Palawan province.
According to Bayan Muna chair and Makabayan bloc senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares, there seems to be a coordinated effort by the Chinese to constrict and restrict the areas in the disputed waters that Filipino fishermen and other Philippine vessels can enter.
“Fishermen have reported continued Chinese presence in Bajo de Masinloc [Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal] and our fishermen were shooed away by the foreigners while at the same time China is also boxing us out of Pag-asa Island and nearby areas,” he said.
Fear of invasion
“The government should protest these types of actions and get the support of the international community against these aggressive moves in the West Philippine Sea,” Colmenares said.
He expressed fears that China “might be gearing up to build more artificial islands or even invade our Pag-asa Island” and urged the Duterte administration to “prepare for this and not let China trample our sovereignty again.”
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, a Liberal Party candidate, lamented that President Duterte did not heed his warnings as early as two years ago that China was slowly trying to gain control of sandbars close to Pag-asa by massing up Chinese coast guard and naval vessels while “warding off” Philippine patrols in the area.
The sandbars are located between Pag-asa and Zamora (Subi) Reef, which has been turned into an artificial island and a military outpost by the Chinese.
“The President has never given any serious attention to issues concerning the seizure by China of our territory and the abuse of our fishermen and our troops,” Alejano said in a statement on Saturday.
“As I have said before, China will continue to assert control in the Pag-asa Island sandbars despite the ‘friendly’ relations that the administration is trying to foster,” he said, adding that the sandbars were critical to China’s claim on Zamora Reef.
The former Marine officer urged the Duterte administration “to act on the rising number of Chinese vessels around Pag-asa Island and protest China’s illegal actions” before it’s too late.
“China is establishing a norm there which we cannot alter later on. Every day is a wasted opportunity to assert our sovereignty if we do not act now,” Alejano said.
Lt. Col. Elpidio Factor, assistant chief of Wescom’s Unified Command Staff for Intelligence, told the Mimaropa Regional Development Council, and Regional Peace and Order Council special meeting on Thursday that as of March 24, Filipino forces had counted up to 657 Chinese vessels close to the sandbars.
“These vessels are considered Chinese maritime militia and are officially complemented by Chinese coast guard vessels to sustain China’s assertive presence in the vicinity of the sandbars,” Factor said.
Wescom chief Vice Adm. Rene Medina tried to downplay the presence of the Chinese vessels, saying Chinese and Vietnamese fished around Pag-asa alongside Filipinos.
“There are no threats to our fishermen. We have constant coordination with higher headquarters, particularly with the Naval Task Force in the West Philippine Sea,” he told reporters on Friday during the command’s 43rd founding anniversary.
Factor reported that the biggest number of vessels, 87, was monitored on Feb. 10, the day the military delivered heavy equipment needed to repair the beaching ramp, air strip and other facilities on the island.
Chinese vessels were also monitored close to other Philippine-occupied islands like Panata and Kota, Factor said.
Chinese coast guard vessels have also been seen near Ayungin Shoal but there were no sightings last week, according to military reports.
A dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that was intentionally grounded on Ayungin is manned by a Marine contingent to stand guard over the shoal.
China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have conflicting claims over the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea-lanes.
A UN-backed international arbitral tribunal ruled in July 2016 to invalidate China’s claim to nearly all of the strategic waters. Beijing, however, has ignored the ruling on the case filed by Manila.
China has built islands on shoals, complete with airstrips and missile defense systems.
The United States and its allies will continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations to prevent China from completely militarizing the disputed waterway, Factor said. —With a report from Redempto D. Anda
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