PH to China: Stay away from Pag-asa
BEIJING — The Philippines has asked China to exercise self-restraint and keep its military forces at an “appropriate” distance from Pag-asa, a Philippine-occupied island in the Spratly archipelago, to avoid escalation of tensions in the South China Sea.
Speaking to visiting reporters from Manila on Wednesday ahead of the Belt and Road Forum, Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said the country’s approach was to discuss the South China Sea dispute but manage it so that it would not turn into a crisis and an obstacle to development and cooperation.
Sta. Romana said the swarming tactic employed by the Chinese maritime militia at Pag-asa Island — internationally known as Thitu Island — the Chinese blockade at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, and the harvesting of giant clams by Chinese fishermen from that rich fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea — the waters within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea — were discussed during consultations between the two countries in early April.
Pag-asa Island is populated by Filipinos and it is administered by Palawan province.
China insists it owns Pag-asa, and has deployed coast guard vessels and fishing boats to the island to discourage any development by the Philippine military there.
China, Sta. Romana said, has reassured the Philippines that it will not use force or occupy Pag-asa. It has also given assurance that the Filipinos’ fishing rights will be respected, he said.
“We welcome any reassurance that there won’t be any act of force against our people, against our soldiers. But at the same time, we have to remain vigilant. We combine diplomacy with deterrence,” Sta. Romana said.
Marine protected areas
In Manila, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. announced a plan to declare Pag-asa Island and Eastern Kalayaan, which includes Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, marine protected areas.
Pag-asa and Eastern Kalayaan are within the Philippine EEZ, Esperon said.
“We aim to institutionalize and promote efforts toward environmental and marine biodiversity protection within the resource-rich West Philippine Sea,” Esperon said at a forum organized by the Association for Philippines-China Understanding.
In an interview after the forum, Esperon said the plan was still under discussion in the government.
Besides China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the South China Sea.
To make sure the other claimants, particularly China, abide by the declaration, Esperon said the Philippines would invite them to join the country in protecting the area.
“But if [China is] not ready for that, then [the] other countries might be ready for joint marine [protection],” Esperon said.
Supply lines open
In Beijing, Sta. Romana said China had not been blocking the food and supply lines to Pag-asa.
The supply line to Ayungin Shoal has remained open since China lifted its blockade of the reef in 2016, he said.
Panatag Shoal, he said, is a more complicated issue that dates back to 2012, when China seized it after a two-month maritime standoff with the Philippines.
Without military muscle to defend its territory, the Philippines challenged China’s claim over nearly the entire South China Sea in the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The court ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, but China ignored the ruling and continued to hold the shoal.
“The lesson of [Panatag] is keep it cool, stick to diplomacy, don’t withdraw and keep talking,” Sta. Romana said.
His critics have urged President Duterte to take up the Chinese military presence at Pag-asa with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting in Beijing this week.
Mr. Duterte flew to Beijing on Wednesday afternoon to attend the Belt and Road Forum and discuss “key developments in bilateral relations and regional affairs” with Chinese leaders, Malacañang said. —With reports from Jeannette I. Andrade and Leila B. Salaverria
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