More than 200 Chinese ships have been spotted anchored off the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea in 2019, the government said Monday while announcing a diplomatic protest had been filed.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said at least 275 Chinese ships were seen anchored near Pag-asa island, a Manila-controlled area where Filipino troops have been refurbishing facilities and repairing its runway.
The announcement came on the same day the 35th annual Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) military exercises involving Philippine, U.S. and Australian forces kicked off. The largest-ever exercise will involve 4,000 Filipinos, 3,500 Americans and 50 Australian forces, according to military officials.
The ships, Panelo said, were spotted from January to March by the military’s Western Command based in Palawan, an island province west of the Philippine capital that fronts the South China Sea.
“The DFA has already made a diplomatic protest over it,” Panelo said, referring to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Panelo could not say when the protest was filed.
A Philippine diplomat who asked to remain anonymous said the government sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese embassy on Friday to express concern about the ships in the region, the Associated Press reported.
On Monday, Panelo met with China’s envoy to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, who told reporters that Filipino fishermen were welcome in the South China Sea although some areas were off limits.
“I think we are concerned about the livelihood of fishermen from both sides,” Zhao said.
He noted both countries have concerns about fishing in the region.
“For example, if Chinese fishing ships are getting too close to the Chung-yeh island (the Chinese name for Pag-Asa), there might be some concerns on your side, while if fishermen are getting too close to the islands where we have people, there might be concerns on our side,” he said.
“But in general, fishing can go on as usual.”
Defense officials on Monday confirmed the presence of Chinese ships near the Spratlys in the South China Sea. The Western Command has been monitoring continuously, department spokesman Arsenio Andolong said.
“Just as the Philippines honors our international obligations and protocols, we also expect other countries and their ships to do the same, especially when sailing and fishing in international waters,” Andolong said. “This is necessary to avoid any misunderstanding and to reduce tensions between countries in the region.”
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to the region.
Reports of the Chinese presence came just days after President Rodrigo Duterte received Song Tao, a senior Chinese communist party leader. The Filipino leader sought to assure Song that the government remained a strong friend to Beijing amid a complaint recently lodged by two former officials with the International Criminal Court against Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Meanwhile, China and territorial disputes are not the focus of this year’s Balikatan exercises, Filipino and U.S. officials said.
“The goal is to enhance both militaries’ employment of forces and assistance in the event of crises that threaten the safety and security of the nation,” Philippine exercise director Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay said, adding that the maneuvers would last until April 12.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Manila and met Duterte and other senior officials. He assured Duterte of his government’s military backing should tensions in the disputed sea region escalate.
Luis Liwanag in Manila and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.