100 Chinese boats have left Pag-asa waters, envoy says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 6) — The Chinese government has finally removed about a hundred of its vessels from the vicinity of Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, an envoy said Thursday.

Ramon Tulfo, a broadcaster who was recently reappointed as President Rodrigo Duterte's special envoy to China, said a Chinese emissary told him Tuesday about the withdrawal.

"Some 100 Chinese fishing boats have been withdrawn from the waters off the Philippine-administered Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea, an emissary from the Chinese government told this columnist on June 4," Tulfo wrote on his column in Manila Times.

He said the Chinese official, whom he did not name, confirmed that the fishing boats were owned by the militia, but stressed they were not armed. "But their sheer number was meant to intimidate an enemy ship," Tulfo said, quoting the emissary.

According to the Armed Forces' Western Command, only 18 Chinese ships have been spotted near Pag-asa Island as of Wednesday. In April, the Philippines heavily protested the swarming of over 200 Chinese vessels around Pag-asa, internationally known as Thitu, one of the biggest islands in the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea and seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan.

"Nagdownscale yung mga presence ng Chinese vessels dito sa ating Kalayaan Island Group," said Stephen Penetrante, chief of the Public Affairs Office of the WesCom. "Bumaba po siya since the visit of the President," he added.

Duterte visited China last April for the Second Belt and Road Forum and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Tulfo earlier told CNN Philippines that during backdoor talks that month, ranking Chinese and military officials "said they will have those ships disappear and withdrawn in no time."

In his column, Tulfo noted that the move "was just an initial gesture on the part of China to win the trust and confidence of the Philippine government."

The presence of the Chinese vessels prompted strong statements from the Duterte administration, which has been criticized for pursuing friendly ties with China despite the long-standing maritime dispute. The Duterte government invoked the arbitral ruling for the first time as it asked the Chinese vessels to leave the West Philippine Sea.

The government calls the areas that the Philippines claims and occupies as the West Philippine Sea, where China built artificial islands, prohibited Filipino fishermen from fishing, and interfered in petroleum exploration. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in some sea features within in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone that are being claimed by China, and called out Beijing's violations.

China rejects the tribunal's decision and insists on its claim to the practically the entire South China Sea, supposedly based on historic rights.

Duterte questioned China's sweeping claims during his recent visit to Japan. "I love China, it has helped us a bit. But it behooves upon us to ask, is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?" he said.

Journalist Catherine Santos contributed to this report.