MANILA, Philippines – So what were Chinese Navy ships doing when the Philippine military spotted them in the waters off Tawi-Tawi in at least 5 instances since July?
"We don't know exactly," Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo said on Thursday, August 15.
It could have been research or surveillance, he added, but either way, the Chinese warships had no business deviating from the straight course required to qualify as innocent passage.
Besides, the Chinese did not notify Philippine authorities beforehand, so for Arevalo, the warships' recent forays into Sibutu Strait were not mere passage but "incursions."
"It could be considered, in a sense, trespassing because…parang bakuran ng ating tahanan: bago may makikiraan, inosente mang kailangang dumaan, kailangan magpasintabi rin, 'no, sa may-ari ng bahay?" Arevalo told reporters in a briefing.
(Like the backyard of our home: before anyone may pass through, innocent though they may be, they must pay courtesy to the owner of the house, right?)
On Wednesday, August 14, the AFP Western Mindanao Command based in Zamboanga said 5 Chinese naval vessels were spotted traversing Sibutu Strait recently – 2 in July, and 3 earlier this month.
However, photos released by the command afterwards indicated 4 warships passed the sea lane in July and only one in August.
AFP Westmincom chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana said the vessels' passage could not be considered innocent because they were on a curved course. Innocent passage means taking the shortest way through the sea lane, which would be a straight line.
The Chinese warships resumed the regular course and exited the area after Philippine aircraft and naval assets tried to approach them, according to Sobejana.
On August 6, the AFP Western Command based in Palawan reported the passage of 4 other Chinese naval vessels in the waters around Balabac Island – including one identified as the aircraft carrier Liaoning – on June 17.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said those 4 warships were the same ones earlier reported to have passed Sibutu Strait, too, on their way from the Sulu Sea to the South China Sea toward China.
Arevalo had called the presence of those 4 warships a "deception" because there was no prior notice of their passage either, and their automatic identification systems must have been deliberately turned off to dodge detection by radar.
All in all, the military has reported 13 instances of Chinese warships passing Philippine waters without permission or prior notice to the government since June.
"As we speak, deliberations are being conducted as to whether there is a need to particularly increase our maritime domain awareness patrols but so far the current status of our monitoring and patrols are sufficient," Arevalo told reporters during the Thursday briefing.
All the Chinese Navy needed to do was secure diplomatic clearance from the government in Manila prior to their vessels' entry to qualify as innocent passage, Arevalo said.
Still, the military does not consider the incursions hostile.
"These sailings, although not covered with appropriate processes, are by itself not hostile so we feel that it is sufficient that we were able to monitor them, report their presence, make them feel and understand that we saw them, that we have monitored them and, in a manner, we have established our sovereignty and authority by flying over them and making our presence known," Arevalo added. – 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.