Chinese vessels in Philippine waters: Who’s keeping score?
When Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana faced the Senate budget panel on Monday, September 30, Senator Panfilo Lacson asked him whether the defense establishment had a “counterstrategy” to China’s “cabbage strategy” of swarming the Philippine outposts in the West Philippine Sea with different kinds of vessels to make access difficult, if not impossible, for Filipinos.
“Are we encountering problems in our resupply?” Lacson asked, pertaining to whether the Philippine Navy is able to bring food, water, and other necessities to the marines stationed among the 9 Philippine-held islands and reefs in the Spratlys – the Kalayaan Island Group.
Lorenzana said there was "no problem."
"I think before the President took over in June 2016, mayroong problemang ganoon (there was such a problem). But after that, our resupply can go there unimpeded by the Chinese Coast Guard or the Chinese PLA-Navy,” the defense chief told Lacson and the other senators on the panel.
But, actually, there was – is – a problem.
Last May 14, a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship with bow number 3305 blocked the route of 3 Philippine civilian vessels on a resupply mission to the grounded ship BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, according to a report by the Department of National Defense (DND) itself.
In fact, China “regularly deploys at least one CCG vessel perceived to be monitoring the activities” around Ayungin Shoal, “including the arrival of Filipino fishing boats as well as the Rotation and Reprovision mission of the Philippine Navy,” said the same report, submitted on September 13 to Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate. The representative had requested for a definitive account from the DND, following piecemeal revelations about intrusions of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) corroborated this in a separate report published on September 26.
"Far from being unusual, the [CCG ship] 3305’s deployment around Second Thomas (Ayungin Shoal) was part of a regular pattern of near-constant CCG patrols near the [BRP] Sierra Madre,” the AMTI report said.
Satellite tracking of two other CCG ships showed their paths criss-crossing Ayungin Shoal and brushing by BRP Sierra Madre several times in July and August.
A detail of the Philippine marines is stationed in the World War II-era ship that the Navy deliberately grounded in 1999 to guard Ayungin Shoal after China occupied Mischief Reef, which lies 20 nautical miles away.
During Monday’s budget hearing for the DND, Lorenzana told the Senate panel that a CCG ship was yet again spotted “4 to 5 nautical miles” from Ayungin Shoal, according to a report Lorenzana said he received just the day before.
There was no surprise from the panel, because the China Coast Guard has become a constant presence near Ayungin Shoal and in other parts of the West Philippine Sea, like Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
'Liaoning' or not
There did not appear to be a “counterstrategy” to speak of, so the conversation between the senators and the security officials moved on to monitoring and protesting Chinese incursions in Philippine waters.
Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels have been loitering in the West Philippine Sea since the Panatag Shoal standoff in 2012. What grabbed Filipinos’ attention in July was news of a Chinese warship passing through Sibutu Strait in the waters of Tawi-Tawi province.
On July 19, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio told a forum of students at the University of the Philippines Diliman that he had it on good authority that the Chinese naval aircraft carrier Liaoning had traversed Philippine territorial waters quite recently.
Lorenzana denied it at the time, saying there was no such report from the marines, and that there was such a thing as “innocent passage” of foreign vessels afforded by international maritime law.
A week later, however, the defense chief revealed that 4 Chinese warships had, in fact, passed Sibutu Strait since February, but none of them was an aircraft carrier.
Liaoning or not, Lorenzana’s revelation raised questions about the Philippines’ capability to safeguard its maritime domain, especially because he said the Chinese Navy should have given prior notice of their passage.
Then the plot thickened. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) units in western Mindanao and Palawan started releasing more reports of Chinese warships passing Philippine territorial waters.
By mid-August, at least 13 instances of such incursions had been reported by Lorezana and the military.
The question then became whether China had violated Philippine sovereignty with those intrusions, or if they qualified as “innocent passage.”
The reports appeared to have caught the government by surprise, and President Rodrigo Duterte even ordered foreign vessels to seek permission before entering Philippine waters or else be driven out by the Philippine Navy.
However, the September 13 DND report revealed precise information on Chinese warship incursions, complete with the ships’ class and bow numbers, and the dates they were spotted by Philippine forces.
The earliest sighting in 2019 was on February 7.
It even stated that the Liaoning did pass Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi and Balabac Strait in Palawan on June 17, just as Carpio had said.
If the military was able to keep precise records of these Chinese naval incursions, at what point was the information given to Lorenzana? Why did he deny Carpio’s revelation at first? Why was the information made public in tranches when a running record existed all along? Would Lorenzana or the military have revealed any of these to the public at all if Carpio had never brought them up in the first place?
The same DND report said 63 Chinese warships were “observed in the West Philippine Sea and other parts of the South China Sea” in 2018.
No one sounded the alarm then.
Since the start of the Duterte administration, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has filed “more or less 60” notes verbale protesting China’s activities in Philippine waters, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr told a budget panel of the House of Representatives on September 4.
Following the advice of maritime law experts like Carpio, Locsin said he had filed 24 “diplomatic protests” since he took over the DFA in October 2018.
Diplomatic protests keep the Philippines’ lawful claims over the West Philippine Sea alive despite China’s incursions, Carpio and other experts have said. Not doing so, on the other hand, could be interpreted as an abandonment of those claims.
Wary of media reports, Locsin has said he only orders the filing of diplomatic protests upon the recommendation of the DND or of the military.
Past midnight on Wednesday, October 2, Locsin tweeted an order to the DFA to “fire off” a diplomatic protest against China over a news report that AFP Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Noel Clement had told the Senate budget panel on Monday about the presence of Chinese vessels near Ayungin Shoal.
It was Lorenzana, not Clement, who told the Senate panel about the latest CCG incursion near Ayungin Shoal.
Clement was asked by reporters after the hearing to give more details about the incursion Lorenzana had talked about, and he said: "May mga namo-monitor but I don’t know the exact numbers as of this time….Hindi kasi regular 'yung numbers. So minsan may nagpapakita isa o dalawa, and a lot of them are actually just fishing boats so I cannot give you the exact details kung ilan talaga 'yung mga pumapasok dun sa area.”
(There are those that are monitored but I don’t know the exact numbers as of this time…. Because the numbers are not regular. So sometimes one or two are spotted, and a lot of them are actually just fishing boats so I cannot give you the exact details of how many really enter the area.)
The DND report submitted to Zarate did say that China uses fishing boats as maritime militias, or paramilitary forces to multiply its presence in the West Philippine Sea. There were 322 such vessels spotted in the first half of 2019.
Clement was further asked whether the information on the latest incursion had been handed over to the DFA.
"Yes. Through the Task Force West Philippine Sea kasi sila ang nagko-collate ng lahat ng (because they are the ones who collate all the) information and they’re the ones who officially communicate this to DFA for the filing of diplomatic protest,” the military chief answered.
During the budget hearing, senators asked Lorenzana to explain the protocol when foreign warships are spotted in Philippine waters.
"Information has to be submitted first to Task Force West Philippine Sea, which is under Malacañang, then that task force under General [Hermogenes] Esperon [Jr], the National Security Adviser, will submit it to the DFA for diplomatic protest,” Lorenzana replied.
However, based on Locsin’s tweet, it was the media report on Clement’s statement on the Chinese incursion that triggered the “firing off” of a diplomatic protest.
If the information had been relayed to the DFA through the task force under Esperon as Clement said, then how come Locsin’s order appeared to have been triggered by a media report quoting Clement?
Did the information not reach Locsin through the official channel described by Lorenzana and Clement?
And what exactly did Locsin or the DFA protest? The CCG ship's presence near Ayungin, according to Lorenzana, or the uncertain number of vessels, according to Clement?
The report on the Chinese presence near Ayungin Shoal came to Lorenzana on Sunday, September 29. The Senate was told about it on September 30. Locsin ordered the DFA on Twitter to file a diplomatic protest as he was headed to Russia with the President at around midnight on Wednesday, October 2.
As Chinese vessels of all sorts come and go through Philippine waters, who exactly is keeping count, and who is telling whom what?
It would be good to know. – Rappler.com
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