The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the swarming of more than 100 Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea, as a top defense official acknowledged that Beijing outsmarted Manila in the Scarborough Shoal when Filipino forces pulled back in the stand-off in 2012.
“Diplomatic protest fired off,” Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on his Twitter account as he retweeted a news item about the country’s plan to protest the swarming of 113 Chinese fishing vessels around Pag-asa Island (Thitu).
Earlier, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said the swarming activity could be a “dry run” for a plan to block resupply missions to the Philippine-held island.
The DFA chief did not mention when was the protest was filed, but insiders said the Philippine government has expressed its serious concern “both in writing and in face-to-face talks” with Chinese officials in Manila and in Beijing.
National security officials and groups pushing to assert the country’s maritime interests in the West Philippine Sea have expressed concern over the recurring presence of a Chinese flotilla near Pag-asa Island, an area in the Spratlys that China also claims.
Early this year, more than 200 Chinese vessels were sighted in the area. China’s latest action this month further aggravates the uncertainty in the South China Sea.
Esperon said he doesn’t know China’s motives for swarming the area with its vessels.
“There were many Chinese fishing vessels there. On Feb. 8, there were 61 and on July 24 it reached 113. I have recommended diplomatic actiont,” Esperon said at a briefing.
But Esperon noted that the number of the Chinese fishing boats has dwindled to three as of Tuesday because of bad weather in the area, while only one Chinese Coast Guard ship remained.
In 2016, the the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidated China’s extensive claims over the entire South China Sea and ruled in favor of the Philippines, but President Rodrigo Duterte has set aside the decision, preferring to foster friendly relations with China to attract more Chinese investments.
Over the last three years, he has been criticized for appeasing China in the face of its aggressive behavior in the West China Sea.
Esperon on Wednesday said China outsmarted the Philippines in the 2012 stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal.
“It remains a fact that we lost Scarborough Shoal, because of some miscalculations,” Esperon said in an interview with ABS-CBN.
Esperon also said the two governments have not yet compared the results of their investigations into the Reed Bank incident, where a Chinese ship hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat and left 22 of its crew in open water.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Wednesday sought greater defense spending to protect the country’s territories amid numerous sightings of Chinese warships and fishermen intruding into Philippine waters.
Lorenzana’s recommendation came weeks after the passage of several warships in Sibutu Straits just few miles off the country’s 200 Exclusive Economic Zone and the swarming of Chinese fishermen near
Pagasa Island, the largest occupied territory outside mainland Philippines.
“It’s time to spend more for our defense in order for us to protect our maritime domain,” Lorenzana said in a radio interview.
The military has planned to procure several sophisticated equipment including fighter jets and navy vessels in the next 10 years to beef up external and internal maritime security.
Lorenzana said China has militarized the West Philippine Sea after it put up sophisticated military facilities in the disputed areas.
In the recently-concluded Shangri-La defense meeting, Lorenzana confronted his defense counterpart and assailed China’s reclamation of reefs, and setting up of military equipment and facilities.
“You are actually driving a mini-arms race in the region,” Lorenzana told his Chinese counterpart, saying money that could have gone to development is now going to buy arms.
But Ambassador Zhao Jianhua assured Lorenzana that China does not want violence in the South China Sea as 85 percent of its oil imports from the Middle East and 65 percent of products, including raw materials, pass through the body of water.
At present, the military is upgrading a runway on Pagasa Island to hasten the delivery of materials intended to rehabilitate deteriorating ports and other military bases fronting the West Philippine Sea.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a frequent critic of the administration’s policy on China, lauded the filing of a protest against Chinese activity near Pag-asa Island.
“(That’s) good because we should keep on protesting that. Otherwise, that is an implied admission that we allowed them to do that and we should not allow that,” Carpio said.
Carpio pointed out that Pag-asa Island has been declared part of the country’s territorial sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in its 2016 ruling.
“The tribunal said there is territorial sea around Pag-asa and all those fishing vessels of China cannot enter a territorial sea to loiter. If they want to pass through under innocent passage rule that means they have to pass in a continuous and expeditious straight line,” he said.
“They cannot loiter, they are prohibited because it’s a territorial sea but what they are doing is they are loitering… When they stay there, they loiter, they are disregarding our right that that is our territorial sea. They should get out of there,” he added.
Carpio also agreed with Lorenzana’s view that all ships passing through the country’s territorial sea should be monitored and be required to turn on their automatic identification system.
Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, asked how long the Duterte government would play doormat to China and its interests.
“The Duterte government must put its foot down and officially bring this matter before the Chinese government,” Hontiveros said.
She said that the incursions are proof that President Duterte’s policy of appeasement of China “is dysfunctional, defeatist and a threat” to the national interest.