Chinese Vessels Still Operating in Vicinity of Disputed Island: Philippine Lawmaker

Felipe Villamor
170803-philippines-spratlys-620.jpg A member of the Philippine military stands on the beach at Thitu island (Pag-asa), which hosts a small Filipino town and airstrip used for civilian and military flights in the disputed Spratlys islands in the South China Sea, June 1, 2014.

Chinese vessels are still harassing and intimidating Filipino fishermen near Pag-asa (Thitu), an island claimed by the Philippines in the disputed Spratlys chain in the South China Sea, a Philippine opposition legislator said Tuesday.

At least three Chinese maritime militia boats backed by a navy ship were recently spotted “one to five nautical miles” from three sandbars that were very near Pag-asa, House of Representatives member Gary Alejano said, citing intelligence sources.

Alejano, an opposition member and an ex-Marine captain, said the sandbars were near Pag-asa and Subi Reef, once a low-tide elevation that was later reclaimed by China.

But a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague had categorized Subi as a “low tide elevation feature,” meaning it lies below the water’s surface, and therefore is not considered an island that could have territorial waters, the lawmaker pointed out.

“Chinese forces are employing new tactics,” Alejano said. “They are harassing our patrolling vessels by continuously sounding their sirens to signify their opposition to our vessels visiting or patrolling the sandbars.”

He said his office would release a “more detailed account” of his allegation on Wednesday.

Representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Manila were not available to comment.

Alejano first made the allegations in August, when he accused China of preparing to invade a sandbar near Pag-asa.

But his allegation was strongly dismissed by the President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, widely seen as a pro-Chinese administration that has bent over backwards to appease Beijing and normalize bilateral relations that were frazzled by the arbitration ruling.

The foreign affairs department then said it had “quietly inquired” about Alejano’s claim. It said it had received a satisfactory answer from Beijing, but did not go into details.

Alejano’s allegations came shortly after China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to a framework for talks on a “code of conduct” in the sea region.

Both sides expect to begin negotiations for the code later this year, in time for a leaders’ annual summit scheduled in November and hosted by Manila.

Pag-asa is part of the contested Spratly island chain that is believed to lie atop vast mineral deposits. Besides the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have territorial claims.

Duterte flatly rejected Alejano’s claim, even as he said that the Chinese were in the area.

“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?” Duterte said at the time.


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