The Japanese Embassy in Manila said Saturday it "strongly opposes" any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas (SCS).
The statement came days after Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and fired a water cannon on two Filipino boats en route to the Ayungin Shoal.
This developed as Partido Reporma chairman and standard-bearer Panfilo “Ping” Lacson made a scheduled visit to Pag-asa Island off the Spratlys archipelago Saturday to personally consult with the local residents and fishermen in the area.
Lacson, who chairs the Senate committee on national defense, saw for himself how inadequate the Philippine military presence was in the vicinity of Pag-asa, under the province of Palawan, in the face of continuing threats by Chinese boats.
"Japan strongly opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East & South China Seas," Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Kazuhiko Koshikawa said in a tweet.
"Compliance with the 2016 Arbitral Award and the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law, UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the
ping…Sea), are vital for peace and prosperity for the region."
Meanwhile, Lacson said 54 Armed Forces personnel and two police officers manned their respective posts on the island, the second largest in the disputed Spratlys archipelago in the West Philippine Sea.
Pag-asa has about 300 residents, 151 of which are civilians and 150 workers from the ongoing rehabilitation of the pier and runway.
Lacson went to Pag-asa Island, some 225 kilometers away from Ayungin Shoal, to receive updates from the AFP WesCom in his capacity as the incumbent chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, Peace, Unification and Reconciliation.
The mission was also part of his ongoing commitment to take a deeper look at the West Philippine Sea situation from reliable sources so he could formulate better plans and strategies that would hopefully address recurring territorial disputes across the region.
A group of Chinese vessels was spotted in the waters near Pag-asa Island on Saturday morning, GMA News correspondent Jonathan Andal reported on Twitter.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Thursday 45 Chinese maritime militia ships had been spotted around Pag-asa last week, the highest number so far this year.
Lacson flew to the island from Manila via private plane early morning carrying new Philippine flags, which he planted on the island as a gesture of goodwill to a small community of Filipinos trying to lead quiet lives in that part of Palawan. The visit was kept under wraps because of security concerns.
Welcoming Lacson upon his arrival for a quick stopover at the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City were the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command stationed in the province.
He departed mainland Palawan around 8 a.m. onboard a private Pilatus aircraft going to Pag-asa Island with Partido Reporma president and former House Speaker Pantaleon ‘Bebot’ Alvarez, and party secretary-general and Davao del Norte Governor Edwin Jubahib.
Partido Reporma senatorial candidate and former national police chief Guillermo Eleazar, spokesperson Ashley ‘Ace’ Acedillo, and former Interior Secretary and National Unity Party chairman Ronaldo Puno also joined the trip. They arrived in the area at 9:10 a.m.
Lacson led a flag-raising ceremony with the Philippine national anthem played during a brief morning program that was held as soon as they landed on Pag-asa.
Three Philippine flags were raised there by the senator to replace the old one in the municipality, according to Acedillo.
“It was a very significant moment. You could really feel that sense of patriotism as a Filipino,” Acedillo said in a brief interview after their visit to Pag-asa Island.
“This is a symbolic action to signify that we are firm in our commitment in defending our territory and our sovereignty and this is even against the backdrop of a looming Chinese presence,” the Partido Reporma spokesman added.
Lacson later engaged the fisherfolk and other concerned local residents in an informal dialogue to get their perspectives on the West Philippine Sea issue.
Acedillo said Lacson was the first elected official ever to pay the Pag-asa Island residents a visit, and they were really happy to see the senator, who even brought them fresh Jollibee “chicken joys” from Manila.
“What I really appreciated during that moment was when Sir Ping Lacson mentioned that the people on the island themselves can even be considered as defenders of our sovereignty, our territory,” Acedillo noted.
Under the arbitral ruling, the Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal had been classified as part of the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
It declared that the feature is not "overlapped by any possible entitlement of China."
The recent Ayungin incident happened on November 16, drawing outrage from the Philippine government.
On Friday, the US government expressed solidarity with Manila, saying the Chinese action "directly threatens regional peace and stability."
United Kingdom Minister of State for Asia Amanda Milling on Saturday also expressed her concern over "recent incidents" that have raised tensions in the region but did not directly refer to the Chinese Coast Guard actions in Ayungin.
"Pleased to reaffirm the importance the UK attaches to UNCLOS and a stable, prosperous South China Sea at the 13th Hanoi SCS Conference this week. I am concerned by recent incidents that have raised tensions and urge against actions that hinder the peaceful settlement of disputes," she said.