Defense chief: Passage of Chinese warships in PH waters not innocent

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 29) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the passage of four Chinese warships in Philippine waters in the south is not innocent, as it coursed through Sibutu Strait with their automatic identification systems (AISs) turned off.

“Maybe they are doing it on purpose so that they will not be detected,” Lorenzana told CNN Philippines on Monday.

Lorenzana recalled that they spotted a ship that went to Benham Rise two years ago whose AIS was turned off, making it disappear from radars.

“So we suspect they are doing something there other than innocent passage,” he said.

Under international maritime law, a foreign ship has a right to innocent passage in a country's territorial waters as long as it does not affect the peace, good order or security of the country.

Lorenzana said foreign warships can pass through Philippine waters, but they should inform authorities about their presence.

“It is very concerning because, you know, to me it is a breach of international protocol. You should inform the host country if you’ve passed through their territorial waters and these ships are warships," he said.

He added that the ships could have taken Malacca Strait between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra instead of passing through Sibutu Strait, an international shipping lane between the islands of Manuk Mangkaw and Simunu near Malaysia, if they came from Africa and are returning to China.

The International Maritime Organization requires that all ships of at least 300 gross tonnage to carry AISs, which would send information about the ships to other ships and to coastal authorities. Cargo ships of at least 500 gross tonnage and all passenger ships are also required to carry AISs.

Ships with AISs are required to keep them in operation at all times “except where international agreements, rules or standards provide for the protection of navigational information.”

However, Lorenzana said it was unusual for the Chinese warships to have their AISs turned off.

He said the warships were only observable by troops stationed in Tawi-Tawi with the naked eye, but not on any monitoring systems.

He added that this may also be the reason why troops there did not report the passage of Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in Philippine waters, as reported by Taiwanese media.

“They may have passed through in the night. Since they do not open their AIS identification system, our radar cannot detect them, nor can our watchers see them because it’s dark,” Lorenzana said.

The Defense chief said Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua denied that Liaoning passed in Philippine waters when they spoke on the day of President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address.

READ: Duterte vows to stop Chinese fishing in West PH Sea ‘in due time’

He said he might ask the Chinese envoy again about the matter in light of media reports showing a purported track of the Chinese aircraft carrier passing through the southern and western Philippines.

China has beefed up its naval presence in waters near the Philippines, most especially in the South China Sea, where it asserts its historical nine-dash line claim.