Manila has filed a diplomatic protest over reports about Chinese boats swarming around territory occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea, the country’s foreign secretary said Wednesday after its defense chief accused Beijing of acting like a bully in the disputed waterway.
Philippine defense officials had confirmed that 113 Chinese vessels were spotted near Pag-asa Island – which the Chinese call Thitu Island – on July 24 and 25, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced via Twitter but without giving a date for when Manila lodged its protest.
“Diplomatic protest fired off. I did. I listen only to military intelligence,” Locsin tweeted.
“When it comes to national security, I am the thinking trigger. The finger is the commander-in-chief and the armed forces which are the protector of people and state.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila declined comment on Wednesday.
Manila has occupied Pag-asa, located about 300 miles (483 km) west of Palawan province, since the 1970s. The government recently began long-delayed rehabilitation projects in the area, including the island's airstrip and port facilities, with a plan to turn the area into a tourist attraction.
News of the diplomatic protest came the same day that National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon confirmed that Chinese vessels were monitored swarming near or circling Pag-asa.
Chinese military ships were recently seen passing through the Sibutu Strait off Tawi-Tawi province in the southern Philippines waters without notifying Manila, he added.
Philippine officials had reported that Chinese naval ships were seen in that area on at least four occasions this year.
While the Chinese Embassy had previously apologized for not notifying Manila about the passages of the military ships, Esperon insisted on Wednesday that “all military vessels that pass through our territory ask for diplomatic clearance” to avoid causing alarm.
“It just so happened that in our record, we do not have it on record that China asked for diplomatic clearance,” Esperon said. “Their reason is the right of innocent passage in a usual sea lane. In a sense that is correct.
“But in our customs and traditions and agreement with other countries, we always advise the country for diplomatic clearance.”
The strait, which lies between Tawi-Tawi’s main island and Sibutu island, effectively is part of the Tawi-Tawi province in the far southern Philippines. At the same time, it is recognized as an international sea lane connecting the Sulu and Sulawesi seas.
On Tuesday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused Beijing of “bullying” his country in the contested sea.
The Philippines and China, meanwhile, have been dealing with fallout from a June incident when a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a smaller Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank, also in the South China Sea. The Philippines condemned the incident, but President Rodrigo Duterte has since backed off from a hardline stance.
Chinese official asks for patience
On Monday, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua asked other claimants to South China Sea territories to be patient while settling disputes, adding that Beijing would not start a war, Rappler reported.
“China adopts a military strategy of active defense which adheres to the principle of defense, self-defense, and post-strike response. Meaning, we will not take the first shot,” Zhao said during a speech in Makati City to mark the 92nd anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Esperon questioned Beijing’s sincerity about a diplomatic resolution to the South China Sea issue, which it claims in whole. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all have overlapping claims.
“Any country can say that,” Esperon told reporters. “Of course they would say ‘we will not fire the first shot.’ Who will fire the first shot? What country will admit to that? None. It is the same for us.”
The statements by Esperon and Lorenzana appear to take a harsher stance than Duterte, who has called for a soft approach when it comes to China. Duterte recently said he would not risk antagonizing China but would rather seek to solve problems through dialogue.
In July 2016, following a standoff between the navies of the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishers, an international tribunal ruled in favor of Manila’s claim to the region. But instead of seeking to enforce the ruling, Duterte sought to appease Beijing and to repair bilateral ties.
Beijing, while saying it would adhere to peace in the region, has kept expanding its territories in the South China Sea, and recently installed missiles there that could hit the Philippines in minutes, according to the Philippine government.