Five Chinese warships passed through southern Philippine waters without notifying Manila on two occasions since July, a Filipino general said Thursday, as President Rodrigo Duterte prepares to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping later this month to discuss the disputed South China Sea region.
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command based in the southern city of Zamboanga, released photographs of the Chinese warships during an interview with BenarNews.
Sobejana said the warships passed through the Sibutu Strait off Tawi-Tawi province twice in July and thrice in August. The vessels were in addition to the four Chinese warships earlier spotted in the same area in June, he said.
“Since these are warships, their entry into our territory should be coordinated, for us to be aware of their presence. Apparently, the entry of these Chinese warships was not coordinated,” Sobejana told BenarNews.
Sobejana emphasized that the warships “were not hostile” although he questioned the navigational course taken by the vessels.
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.
Not the first time
Philippine officials had earlier raised the issue of the passing Chinese ships with the Chinese Embassy in Manila, which had apologized for the first instance. It had also promised to inform Manila in advance of any passage, a statement that it had apparently ignored.
National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon earlier said that while China had the right of innocent passage, not coordinating the trip with Filipino officials beforehand could cause unnecessary panic.
Sobejena said that he had dispatched air assets and scrambled naval aircraft to the area to try and communicate with the Chinese ships in the two latest instances. But the Philippine planes could not communicate with the Chinese vessels because their “radio was turned off,” he said.
But the warships “went away” without any incident, he said.
One of the ships photographed early this month appeared to be a surveillance vessel with bow number 853, while two warships monitored in July had bow numbers 536 and 998, respectively, Sobejana said.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, warned that Manila should expect more frequent passage of Chinese warships through its waters as China expands its naval reach.
“The entry of Chinese warships into Philippine waters without prior notice and consent of the Philippines runs counter to their own policy for their own waters, and thus demonstrates a double standard at the very outset,” he said.
Batongbacal said Manila was entitled to enact rules and regulations governing passage through the territorial sea for purposes of maritime safety and management of marine traffic, including prescribing the use of sea lanes and traffic separation schemes.
Last month, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest after Chinese boats were seen swarming around territory occupied by the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.
The protest was based on confirmed reports about 113 Chinese vessels spotted near Pag-asa Island – which the Chinese call Thitu Island – on July 24 and 25.
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.
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 in The Hague, Netherlands, 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.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including areas close to its neighbors. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.
Duterte said last month that he was in no position to adopt a stronger position against China because of its superior firepower.
Public pressure mounting
His tune has since changed as public pressure has snowballed, and his spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters on Thursday that Duterte would likely raise the arbitral ruling with Xi during his trip to Beijing this month.
“It should be a subject of concern between the two countries,” Panelo said.
“Let's say that we express concern with that kind of incident. Because if they keep on saying that we're friends, I don't think that this an act of friendship,” he said.
Panelo said that Duterte also agreed with the characterization made earlier by security officials that China has appeared to become a bully in the region.
Duterte’s forthcoming Beijing visit was partly because “he wants to hasten the enactment of the code of conduct,” covering the disputed sea region, Panelo said.
Manila and Beijing remain friends and any disagreement can be ironed out in a negotiation, Panelo said.
“There are things we can agree upon, there are difference that we may not,” he said. “But that does not preclude both countries to raise that issue and discuss amicably.”
Duterte has promised to raise the arbitral ruling again with Xi at the proper time, and “apparently, this is the time,” Panelo said.