MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command (Wescom) said 4 Chinese Navy vessels passed through the waters of Balabac in Palawan in June without prior notice to the Philippine government.
In a statement, Wescom chief Vice Admiral Rene Medina said the first Chinese warship was monitored traversing the Balabac Strait at about 1:30 pm on June 17. The vessel did not respond to radio communication from Philippine troops challenging its passage.
A second Chinese naval vessel was monitored at about 7:54 pm in the vicinity of Balabac Island, which responded to a radio challenge from Philippine troops by stating its bow number. It was accompanied by two other Chinese warships that were unresponsive to radio calls from Philippine troops.
Medina said this information was "reported and submitted to higher headquarters” and provided the basis for a recommendation to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to file a diplomatic protest.
“We are very glad that the higher headquarters and the DFA were cognizant of these reports and have taken actions,” Medina added.
Besides the 4 warships, around 140 Chinese fishing vessels were spotted in the West Philippine Sea, particularly around Pag-asa Island, during the first half of July this year. The number went down to 3 during Typhoon Falcon from July 15 to 19, then went up again to around 115 vessels afterwards.
Medina said the Wescom also reported this to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, and recommended that the DFA inquire about it with the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
On July 31, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said the DFA had “fired off” a diplomatic protest against China over the swarming of its vessels near Pag-asa Island.
On July 25, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said 4 Chinese naval vessels traversed the Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi since February, but denied an earlier report that they included the aircraft carrier Liaoning.
In a chance interview on Tuesday, August 6, Lorenzana told Rappler that the ships spotted in Balabac were the same ones that passed Sibutu Strait.
International customary law requires naval states to notify a country before sending warships through its territorial waters, Lorenzana said, noting that the Chinese vessels must have turned off their automatic identification systems to have passed undetected by radars.
He went on to criticize China’s “bullying” tactics in the West Philippine Sea.
Medina said the Wescom's Joint Task Force West “continuously conducts maritime and sovereignty patrol missions” to sustain its presence in the 9 islets under Philippine control, and to ensure that Philippine troops stationed in the area are well-provisioned. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.