Sino ships in WPS, AMT insists
NINE Chinese vessels appeared to be “actively fishing” near the Pag-asa Island or Thitu Island in the disputed West Philippine Sea waters, a Washington-based think tank said Thursday (Friday in Manila).
In its latest report, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a 55-year-old independent think tank based in the US, said “there were nine Chinese fishing ships and two naval/law enforcement vessels visible” near Pag-asa Island on Aug. 13, “with others possibly under cloud cover.”
“It is impossible to know if any of those ships might be affiliated with the maritime militia, but at least two appear to be actively fishing (locations 6 and 8), with their nets visibly in the water,” the AMTI said.
The think tank said Beijing’s move to “fish” within disputed waters “is no doubt that doing so is highly provocative and runs counter to the narrative of a stable mutually-beneficial new status quo that Beijing has sought to project.”
“The fact that law enforcement and naval vessels accompanied the fishermen makes it clear that this was not done without Chinese authorities being aware. At best, they permitted their operation. At worst, they escorted and guarded them,” the AMTI said.
“The number and rapid coordination of naval and coast guard ships suggests that this was purposely organized in advance and was not just an ad hoc response by government vessels that happened to be in the area,” it added.
The images shown appear to corroborate claims by Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, who called out the government to file a diplomatic protest over what he called “extraordinary activities” of five Chinese vessels earlier spotted near Pag-asa Island.
There also appears to be a Philippine fishing boat docked at the nearest of the unoccupied sandbars, possibly sent out from Pag-asa Island to investigate Chinese presence, the think tank said.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano earlier said the issue on the presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea “does not mean anything,” even as he said Filipinos must learn to develop trust in China in the same manner that it trusted the United States, a longtime ally.
But contrary to Cayetano’s stance downplaying such reports, military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said a diplomatic protest should be filed against Beijing if the presence of Chinese ships in Pag-asa Island would be proven.
“We file diplomatic protest whenever we have sightings close to our areas—especially this one,” Padilla told reporters in a Palace news briefing, adding the military had asked the AFP Western Command to verify such reports.
“There have been a lot of fisherman from our side who have been fishing in our waters over there, and I think the bone of contention was regarding the presence of some of our fisherman in some of those areas kaya nandoon din iyong mga Chinese. Now this is a matter now being addressed,” he added.
Thitu Island, having an area of 37.2 hectares and lies about 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, is the second largest of the naturally occurring islands in the Spratly Island chain and the largest of the Philippine-administered islands.
AMTI said that one possible explanation for the flotilla’s sudden and provocative appearance is to “dissuade Manila from planned construction on Thitu.”
“In light of this week’s events, Manila might feel that those upgrades are even more urgent,” the think tank said.
Earlier, the government said it planned to spend about $32 million on upgrades on the Philippine-controlled island, including a beaching ramp, desalination facilities, and long-overdue repairs to the islet’s crumbling runway.
Those upgrades have been delayed, reportedly due to inclement weather, but Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has made clear that they remain in the pipeline.