A congressman urged the Philippine government Thursday to file a diplomatic protest against China, citing intelligence reports that several of its vessels, including two warships, had been spotted near the Manila-occupied Pag-asa island.
House of Representatives member Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain, said the Chinese flotilla also included a coast guard vessel and two large fishing boats escorted by a maritime militia.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, which is perceived to have gone soft on China to curry diplomatic and trade favors, must demand Beijing explain why the ships were in the area about five days ago, Alejano said.
He said he was disheartened to learn that Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano was “brushing aside the unusual and suspicious presence” of Chinese ships near Pag-asa, a part of the contested Spratly Islands chain that has been home to a tiny contingent of troops and fishermen since the 1970s.
The Spratlys are believed to lie atop vast natural gas and oil deposits. Apart from China and the Philippines, the chain is claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, creating a potential flash point for conflict in the region.
Cayetano said he could neither confirm nor deny the reported Chinese incursion even as he appeared to rule out a diplomatic protest against Beijing.
“We will tell you if this is a cause for diplomatic or military alarm,” Cayetano told reporters. “So it’s alarmist that every time someone nears the area we will protest.
“While I can’t tell you the details, I can tell you the communications is there. There’s reasons for certain presence of certain vessels,” he said, adding the situation in the area is stable.
Earlier this week, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana told a congressional hearing that China had agreed to not occupy new features or territory in the South China Sea, Reuters reported on Tuesday. He said the nations had reached an agreement prohibiting new occupation of islands.
China has built seven islands on top of reefs in disputed areas including three capable of accommodating fighter jets, experts say. The islands have runways, radar and surface-to-air missiles, according to Reuters.
Cayetano said that the strategy of former President Benigno Aquino III’s administration was to confront China “at every opportunity.”
Duterte, who took office last year, has focused on changing the nation’s relationship with China by conducting a state visit there and announcing he was distancing his regime from the United States, Manila’s defense treaty ally.
Alejano said the Philippines should be worried about Chinese efforts in the sea region, which he warned could be a prelude to grabbing contested islands from smaller neighbors.
“Have we already adopted the strategy of silence, inaction, and subservience in West Philippine Sea so as not to offend China?” Alejano said, using the Philippine name of the South China Sea.
“This is not even comparable to U.S. ships conducting freedom of navigation in South China Sea,” he said. “The U.S. is our long-time ally and is not involved, whatsoever, in island grabbing in South China Sea.”
He said China has a history of grabbing islands and harassing fishermen.
“The Duterte administration has the duty to be transparent in its dealings with China and on issues in the West Philippine Sea. We have not heard, so far, of any diplomatic protest lodged by (the foreign office) against China’s intrusions and aggressive actions especially on our fishermen,” he said.
The fresh allegation came days after China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed early this month to a framework for talks on a “code of conduct” in the sea region. They cited improving cooperation in the South China Sea, but nudged Beijing over its continued land reclamation activities.
Both sides expect to begin negotiations for the code later this year, in time for a leaders’ annual summit scheduled in November.