Several Chinese warships sailed through waters off the southern Philippines this year without notifying Philippine authorities, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday, adding that he had confronted Beijing’s envoy to Manila this week about the sightings.
Lorenzana said he spoke to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua during President Rodrigo Duterte’s annual address to Congress on Monday. In his speech, the Philippine leader defended China and said he had no choice but accept Beijing’s expansionism in the contested South China Sea, as he pointed to the Chinese deployment of missiles in the maritime region.
The Chinese have the “right of innocent passage,” but they should have notified the Philippine government before their warships passed through the Sibutu Strait off Tawi-Tawi province in the country’s far south, Lorenzana told reporters on the sidelines of a Coast Guard event in Manila.
“If those are warships, they should inform us that they are passing, but they did not,” Lorenzana said.
He said he asked the Chinese ambassador “very frankly” about a report that the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning had passed through the area three times but was left unchecked. Lorenzana said Jianhua answered him in the negative.
The report was made public by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
However, the envoy said he was aware of "several ships" that had passed through the area, according to the Philippine defense chief.
“He said that in the future they will require those ships to inform the Chinese Embassy in Manila about intended passage in Sibutu, and they will (in turn) inform us,” Lorenzana said.
The strait, which lies in the middle of Tawi-Tawi’s main island and Sibutu island, is effectively part of the Tawi-Tawi province in the country’s southernmost tip. While there is no contention that it is part of Philippine territory, it is recognized as an international sea lane connecting the Sulu and Sulawesi seas.
The revelation about the Chinese warships came as the Philippines and China were dealing with fallout with international ramifications of an incident last month when a Chinese trawler rammed and sank a smaller Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank in the disputed South China Sea. The Philippines condemned the incident, but later appeared to pull back its diplomatic punches.
Duterte on Monday dismissed the episode as a maritime incident, which both China and the Philippines were investigating for the purpose of determining the actual payment for damage done to the Filipino boat.
China claims most of the mineral-rich sea region, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the region.
In July 2016, following a tense standoff between the navies of the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal, an international tribunal ruled in favor of Manila. Evidence presented then on behalf of the Philippines documented that clam extraction by Chinese fishing boats had damaged about 25,000 hectares of shallow reef surfaces.
China ignored the ruling.
Instead of moving to enforce the ruling, Duterte sought to appease China after he took office in mid-2016. He has since made several visits to Beijing and has been gravitating toward the Asian power and away from the United States, the traditional Philippine ally.
Richel V. Umel and Froilan Gallardo in Iligan City, Philippines, contributed to this report.