MANILA, Philippines – A Philippine lawmaker raised alarm over “extraordinary activities” of Chinese ships near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), concerned that they are eyeing to occupy sandbars where Filipinos living there would go to fish and picnic.
Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano said the swarm is composed of two frigates, a coastguard vessel, two large fishing vessels, and numerous maritime militias.
“The Chinese may have a sinister plan to occupy sandbars just west of Pag-asa that belong to us. There is also information that it prevented or blocked our BFAR [Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources] ship in the area,” he told Rappler on Tuesday, August 15.
Alejano raised this to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana Monday night, August 14, in the House of Representatives during deliberations on the defense department’s budget before the committee on appropriations.
In an interview with reporters on Tuesday, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said their agency is verifying this report with authorities on the ground, such as the country’s defense officials and members of the Philippine Coast Guard.
Alejano, a former marine officer, said he received the information from his contacts in the military. The ships have been there since Saturday, August 12, he said.
Pag-asa, one of the biggest islands in the Spratlys, is occupied by about a hundred Filipinos. Chinese ships are always spotted near the island because of its proximity to one of 7 reefs China reclaimed – Subi Reef – located 20 nautical miles southwest.
But the Chinese ships have not been spotted too close to the sandbars located less than 3 nautical miles north of Pag-asa.
Cayetano’s modus vivendi with China
Lorenzana told the committee that troops are ready to defend the country’s territory in any event of attack.
“It would be a very serious thing if the Chinese will occupy any of the islands, kahit ‘yung mga islands na malalayo (even the islands that are far away)… That would be a very serious issue,” Lorenzana said.
Alejano said he is worried that China will use “maritime militias” – civilian fishermen – to attack Pag-asa Island.
“They are civilian fishermen using smaller boats but were enlisted by Chinese militaryto achieve their objectives like blocking, ramming, and harassing our fishermen and government vessels,” said Alejano.
Lorenzana said he is counting on China not to occupy more territories in the West Philippine Sea, based on a “modus vivendi” that he said was brokered by Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
“There is status quo now that is happening in the South China Sea brokered by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. According to him, the Chinese will [neither] occupy new features in the South China Sea nor are they going to build structures in Scarborough Shoal,” Lorenzana told the committee.
Lorenzana visited Pag-asa in April after President Rodrigo Duterte canceled plans to plant the Philippine flag there.
The government allocated P1.6 billion ($32 million) to repair facilities there including the dilapidated runway. – Rappler.com