DFA hits 'illegal' deployment of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island

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The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released photos of what it said was China's response to runway repairs the Philippines started last May 2018 on Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest islands in the contested Spratlys. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 4) — The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) called as illegal the Chinese vessels swarming around Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.

In a statement on Thursday, the DFA said Pag-asa, seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan, "is an integral part of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction."

"Accordingly, the presence of Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa and other maritime features in the KIG (Kalayaan Island Group) is illegal," the DFA said.

It added that the Chinese government is considered adopting these actions if it does not renounce them.

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said Beijing is verifying reports that its vessels have been surrounding Pag-asa. He said the ships may be manned by "unarmed" Chinese fishermen, but Malacañang said reports from the military suggest militiamen have been deployed there.

"The presence of Chinese vessels within the KIG, whether military, fishing or other vessels, will thus continue to be the subject of appropriate action by the Philippines," the DFA said.

Locsin orders filing of protest

Earlier on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. ordered the DFA to study the presence of Chinese vessels and file a diplomatic protest, as called by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

"Okay guys at DFA, let's look into this and file ASAP if not too late. Let us see if we can undo the fuck-ups of previous administrations that sold us," Locsin's tweet read. Malacañang's previous statements varied, as Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo on different occasions said it was already filed, "on the way" or "most likely" filed.

Up to 275 ships have swarmed the vicinity of Pag-asa in January to March, Captain Jason Ramon, Western Command chief of public affairs , told CNN Philippines Monday. Authorities said the exact figure may differ day-by-day as ships in the area come and go.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a United States-based think tank, earlier reported that China deployed up to 95 ships, including government vessels, near Pag-asa as the Philippines conducted repairs there.

LOOK: Photos show China deployment of 'militia' as PH builds on Pag-asa Island – think tank

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the recent developments will not stop the Philippines from repairing and improving structures on the island.

"Oh they (China) have been watching us for a long time but our projects are proceeding and will continue until completed. They are not interfering," Lorenzana told reporters when asked if the country's projects on Pag-asa Island would continue amid the presence of hundreds of Chinese ships.

Lorenzana earlier revealed that China tried to stop the government from repairing structures on Pag-asa Island. This includes a runway which the government expects to be completely repaired by the end of 2019.

DFA to China: Exercise restraint

The DFA said the government has been consistently protesting Chinese activities on disputed areas whenever necessary, but refused to disclose details of those already filed. It said "objections or concerns over illegal, tension-raising or coercive activities, through diplomatic actions," were also raised during meetings with China, including the recently concluded Bilateral Consultation Mechanism.

It also reminded China to exercise self-restraint and avoid activities that would escalate tension in the South China Sea as agreed upon by both Manila and Beijing during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the Philippines in November 2018.

"We call on the Chinese government to adhere to this consensus reached at the highest levels, down to its agencies and its military," the DFA said.

Pag-asa is one of the biggest islands in the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea. Philippine troops and a community of fishermen live on the island. Other claimants in the Spratlys are China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.

CNN Philippines' Tristan Nodalo contributed to this report.