MANILA, Philippines – Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano criticized Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano for "brushing aside" the alleged presence of military and civilian Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"Have we already adopted the strategy of silence, inaction, and subservience in West Philippine Sea so as not to offend China?" the opposition lawmaker said in a statement on Thursday, August 17, a day after Cayetano downplayed the reported presence of Chinese ships.
It was Alejano, a former Marine, who first made the information public during the August 14 budget briefing for the Department of National Defense (DND) at the House of Representatives.
Alejano said the activities may be part of China's "sinister plan" to occupy sandbars just west of Pag-asa Island, which is home to over 100 Filipino civilians, and has a school building and town hall. (READ: The residents of Pag-asa: Life on a disputed island)
Chinese ships had also apparently blocked a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ship in the area, said Alejano, citing information from contacts in the military. Cayetano has refused to confirm or deny Alejano's claims.
"Cayetano even said that people in China would not be alarmed, like Filipinos, if we bring our Navy ships [to] Pag-asa Island. Cayetano forgets to note that our ships do not go near Chinese-claimed islands as near as one nautical mile," said Alejano.
He added: "This is not even comparable to US ships conducting freedom of navigation in South China Sea which Cayetano said that we should also be worried about. US is our longtime ally and is not involved, whatsoever, in island grabbing in South China Sea. Unlike China which has the history of grabbing islands and harassing our fishermen. [Those are] entirely two different things."
The foreign secretary, President Rodrigo Duterte's vice presidential candidate in the 2016 elections, earlier ribbed the party-list representative during an August 16 press conference, reminding him of the "thin line between informing us and stirring up the situation."
When asked if the Philippines would file a diplomatic protest over the reported Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island, Cayetano said while it was an option, "that is not our strategy anymore." He later clarified that he did not mean to say the Philippines would not file any protest at all, while saying protests can come in various forms – verbal or written.
To this, Alejano said: "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 DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) against China's intrusions and aggressive actions especially on our fishermen."
Duterte has repeatedly announced a shift to an "independent" foreign policy. So far, this has meant distancing from traditional ally the United States and forging closer ties with countries like Russia and China.
China is claiming practically the whole of the South China Sea as its own, a source of tension between the Philippines and China in recent years. – Rappler.com