A PARTY-LIST lawmaker on Tuesday urged the government to file a diplomatic protest against China over Chinese ships spotted near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.
At the same time, Magdalo Party-List Rep. Gary Alejano said the Philippines must call on China to order their ships away from the disputed waters.
“I call on… government officials to be transparent in what is happening in West Philippine Sea. We must assert our rights in the midst of talks with China,” Alejano said at a news conference Tuesday.
But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said during the department’s budget hearing at the House of Representatives Monday night that the military will not take for granted what Alejano finds as “extraordinary activities” of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island.
“It would be a very serious thing if the Chinese will occupy any of the islands, even the islands that are far away… That would be a very serious issue,” Lorenzana said.
Nevertheless, Lorenzana said he is confident the China will abide by the status quo “modus vivendi” that was brokered by Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano with Chinese officials, and that China would not occupy new areas of the South China Sea and would not build more structures on Scarborough Shoal.
But Alejano said the Chinese were planning to occupy sandbars on Pag-asa Island.
“I received information from sources in the military that since three days ago, China has deployed two frigates, one Coast Guard vessel, and two large fishing vessels, with their maritime militia, one to three nautical miles north of Pag-asa Island,” Alejano said.
“Further, the report said, two days ago a Philippine government ship from BFAR was prevented by Chinese fishing vessels from going near our sand bars located generally west of Pag-asa Island, around two to seven miles away,” Alejano added.
He said the suspicious massing up of Chinese Navy and Coast Guard and maritime militias north of Pag-asa Island was a threat to the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea.
“This is highly suspicious and threatening considering that China says one thing in public and does another on the ground,” Alejano said.
“For example, our fishermen continued to be harassed in the West Philippine Sea by the Chinese Navy or Coast Guard. Let us not forget what happened in 1995 when they grabbed Mischief Reef from us,” he added.
Cayetano on Tuesday said the Philippines is considering potential ways to jointly develop oil and gas resources with China in a disputed part of the South China Sea.
Any joint ventures would conform to Philippine law and wouldn’t lead to the loss of Philippine territory, Cayetano told a House of Representatives hearing on Tuesday in Manila. Shortly afterward, he sought a closed-door meeting with legislators, citing national security.
“If we can come up with a commercial deal better than Malampaya in the disputed areas, how can any Filipino argue with that?” Cayetano said. He was referring to the country’s largest gas field, which is set to run out of supply in 2024.
The remarks are the latest indication of warmer ties between the Philippines and China after years of tension under the prior administration of Benigno Aquino III. Since taking power last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer investment and trade links with Beijing, including over resources in the South China Sea.
Aquino brought China before an international arbitration tribunal over its claims to 80 percent of one of the world’s most strategic waterways, and won. He also strengthened the Philippine alliance with the US to try to check China’s expansion in the South China Sea, where it has built a series of artificial reefs, creating a platform to assert its claims.
Duterte isn’t ignoring the arbitration award, and will bring it up at a later time as the Philippines builds mutual trust with China, Cayetano said.
“There was no opportunity to talk to China because we had consistent confrontations with them,” he said. “We won the legal part, but on the ground we were going nowhere.”
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi backed the idea of joint energy ventures with the Philippines in disputed waters, saying it was “full of political wisdom.” Unilateral development could lead to tensions and hurt both countries, Wang told reporters during a visit to Manila.
Any deal may also affect Vietnam, which rejects China’s expansive sea claims as a basis for jointly developing energy resources. The BBC reported last month that Vietnam had ordered Repsol SA, a Madrid-based oil-and-gas company, to halt activities in the South China Sea after China threatened to attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands. With Bloomberg