A Philippine senator is seeking an investigation into potential Chinese investments on three islands in the northern Philippines, including one near a former U.S. naval base, saying this has “strategic security implications” for the country.
Meanwhile on Friday, the Philippine foreign secretary said his department lodged a diplomatic protest against Beijing after fresh reports emerged that Chinese survey ships and warships were spotted sailing through waters considered as Philippine territory. The protest was the second one lodged by the Department of Foreign Affairs in less than two weeks over alleged Chinese maritime activities in the region.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a lawmaker in the opposition, told BenarNews on Friday that she had filed a resolution this week in response to reports Chinese investors are seeking to gain access to the islands of Fuga, Grande and Chiquita. Fuga Island, one of the northernmost islands in the Philippines, is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, while the other islands lie in the mouth of Subic Bay in Zambales province.
“The resolution seeks to address the Filipino public’s fears of a creeping annexation of the country, amid efforts by foreign groups to take over various locations of immense military and strategic value,” Hontiveros said.
“By calling for an investigation, I want to know what are the true motives and goals of these foreign nationals and firms in developing these islands, and why government offices – either local [or] national – allowed foreign parties to access these strategic locations in the first place,” she said.
Hontiveros said she also wanted to find out if Chinese firms are complying with Philippine laws in an effort to gain access to the islands, which are close to military bases and where, she alleged, the Chinese could maintain listening posts amid a territorial dispute with Manila.
“The fact that the Philippine Navy itself expressed alarm over these deals and projects compels us to leave no stone unturned in investigating the situation,” she said, adding she wanted to find out how the deals came about.
Hontiveros said locations chosen were close to “strategic maritime fronts,” but the control of the three islands remains “essential to maintaining maritime security in the whole country.”
Fuga Island, according to the navy, controls access to the Luzon Strait and Pacific Ocean, while the Grande and Chiquita islands are near the Panatag shoal, otherwise known as Scarborough Shoal – a traditional fishing ground in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that China had taken control of about six years ago.
An international arbitration court in 2016 ruled in favor of the Philippine claim over Scarborough, but the Chinese effectively ignored that decision.
Panatag and Chiquita are near Subic Bay, a strategic, deep water port that once hosted the biggest U.S. Navy base in Southeast Asia, until the Philippine Senate voted to end its lease in 1991.
The area later converted into a free port but its biggest investor, South Korean shipbuilder Hanjin, recently filed for bankruptcy. The Philippine Defense Department has since said a state-owned firm from China was looking to bid for the property.
Duterte changes his tone
Instead of enforcing the court ruling, which came shortly after he took power in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte sought to appease China. He is scheduled to make his fifth trip there later this month, two months after a Chinese trawler sank a Philippine fishing boat in the disputed South China Sea.
The president told Congress in July there was nothing he could do about Beijing’s activities in the sea. On Thursday night, he appeared to project a stronger tone as he told reporters in Manila that he would raise the issue with his Chinese hosts.
“I’d like to talk about jurisdiction, the COC (code of conduct) and the exploitation of the natural resources of my country as far as I’m concerned, we own it,” Duterte said. “So that’s my position.”
He issued the statement a day after a nuclear-power aircraft carrier from the United States, the long-time Philippine military ally, sailed into Manila Bay. The USS Ronald Reagan is officially here on a short rest and recreation trip.
The admiral who oversees the carrier and its strike group told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. Navy was ready to provide assistance for defending the Philippines, and American military ships would protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Open to espionage
Although on the surface the Chinese are seeking to transform the three islands into “economic hubs,” the arrangement could “complicate and hamper” the Philippines’ security operations there, Sen. Hontiveros said.
“The influx of foreign nationals will also make these areas more vulnerable to espionage and other risks to our national security,” she said.
Meanwhile, a former resort in Cavite province just south of Manila has also been leased to a Chinese firm allegedly for purposes of housing the thousands of Chinese employees of casinos that cater to visitors from the mainland.
The resort, however, is less than 5 km (3.1 miles) from two important Philippine defense installations – the Danilo Atienza Airbase and the Naval Base Heracleo Alano.
“It boggles the mind how a foreign-run establishment set to employ thousands of foreign workers was permitted to operate so close to two vital military bases,” Hontiveros said.
“China’s bullying and encroachment of Philippine territory and its resources is a reality, not an imagined threat. Chinese vessels continue to harass poor Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, and plunder and destroy our precious natural resources,” the senator added, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Earlier on Friday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced his department had filed a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of research ships and warships that were recently reported to have sailed through Philippine waters.
Locsin announced the move over Twitter, after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzan said he would like to find out what “what these ships are doing in our EZZ without our knowledge.”
Lorenzana was reacting to images shared on Twitter by Ryan Martinson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Washington, which showed the Chinese-flagged Dong Fang Hong 3 operating in waters near the Ilocos region in the northern Philippines on Wednesday.
Map images also showed that a Chinese survey ship, Zhangjian, had been operating in waters off the Philippines since last weekend.
In late July, Locsin said the Philippines had filed a separate diplomatic protest over reports that Chinese boats were swarming in territory occupied by Manila in the South China Sea.
On Friday, Martinson sent out a message via Twitter saying that another Chinese ship, Shiyan 2, was continuing to operate in waters inside Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone off the coast of Sarawak state.
Martinson declined to respond to questions from BenarNews about the Chinese ship movements.