In a Palace briefing, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said an ABS-CBN report was exaggerated and that there were only 275 Chinese vessels spotted near the island from January to March this year.
He also insisted the Chinese vessels were not “circling” the island but were merely stationary.
He said he would meet with China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua to discuss the matter.
“Anything that concerns the security of the Philippines will always be a concern... We have already issued a diplomatic protest per the Western Command. The DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) has already made a diplomatic protest over it,” Panelo said.
Also on Monday, the Chinese ambassador said the complaint filed by former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales against Chinese President Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court would not prosper.
“We think it is a kind of political action viciously targeting the Chinese leadership, so we don’t think it is a proper action that is based on fact,” Zhao told Palace reporters. “It’s a fabrication and also a misuse of the mandate of the ICC.”
Del Rosario and Morales had asked the ICC to investigate Xi and other Chinese officials for crimes against humanity in connection with China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea.
On the report of Chinese vessels, Zhao said the Chinese government was cooperating with the Philippines to know the truth.
“We are cooperating with the Filipino side to verify if there is any truth to that kind of report,” Zhao told Palace reporters.
“I know there are fishermen from both sides, but whether the number is 600, whether they are surrounding the islands that you have people there, it is really up for further investigation and verification,” he said.
He added that the Chinese vessels were manned by fishermen.
“We have to verify media reports whether they are authentic or not. That’s the first step. If they are true, I’m sure both sides can handle the issue through diplomatic channels in a friendly manner,” Zhao added.
In its report, ABS-CBN News quoted an official of the AFP Western Command as saying “the foreign vessels monitored in Pag-asa Island are all Chinese fishing vessels deployed in the vicinity of the sandbar.”
These vessels, ABS-CBN News said, quoting LTC Elpidio Factor of the Western Command, are considered “Chinese maritime militia and are occasionally complemented by Chinese Coast Guard vessel[s] to sustain China’s assertive presence in the vicinity of the sandbars.”
The Western Command and the Defense Department have since questioned parts of the ABS-CBN report, including the number of Chinese vessels.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said Monday that sightings do not automatically mean there are more than 600 Chinese ships off Pag-asa Island and that some vessels were sighted many times. He said the actual number would be closer to 200 vessels.
The Western Command based in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, is responsible for securing the province and its vast maritime domains, including the Kalayaan Island Group.
Madrigal said military patrols are regularly carried out together with the Philippine Coast Guard.
Asked if the AFP is recommending the filing of a protest on the matter, the AFP chief said that is the duty of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.
The Department of National Defense said it is continuously monitoring the presence of Chinese vessels and their activities off the waters of Pag-asa Island.
“The Department of National Defense, meanwhile, has been communicating reports of the above [matter] to the Department of Foreign Affairs for appropriate action. Just as the Philippines honors our international obligations and protocols, we also expect other countries and their vessels to do the same especially when sailing and fishing in international waters. This is necessary in order to avoid any misunderstanding and to reduce tensions between countries in the region,” the DND said in a statement.
The agency encouraged Filipino fishermen to continue their fishing activities in the country’s waters and Exclusive Economic Zone.
After his meeting with Zhao for 50 minutes Monday afternoon, Panelo issued a statement saying that both sides recognize the value of the responsible use of marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, including the rich fishing ground of the Scarborough Shoal.
“Both officials likewise give importance to the existing bilateral consultation mechanism between China and the Philippines as an avenue to address possible issues in the West Philippine Sea and to resolve any conflict or misunderstanding that may arise therefrom,” his statement said.
He said they also discussed the country’s loan agreements with China, the ICC complaint and the influx of Chinese workers.
Zhao, he said, assured the Philippines that his government does not consent to any illegal entry or employment of its citizens here. With Rey E. Requejo, and PNAREAD: GMA: China partner in development not threatREAD: Pinoy fishers urged: Avoid Scarborough
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