Over 100 Chinese vessels swarmed Pag-asa Island again, Philippines protests

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 31) — The Philippines has filed another diplomatic protest with Beijing on the presence of more than a hundred Chinese vessels around Pag-asa island last week, officials said Wednesday.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. in a media briefing, said he recommended diplomatic action on the swarming of Chinese vessels in Philippine-occupied Pag-asa, internationally known as Thitu. It is 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.

"Napakaraming Chinese fishing vessels doon. Ang bagong record noong February 8... umabot sila ng 61. Noong July 24, umabot sila ng 113. I have recommended diplomatic action in regards to that," Esperon said.

Moments after the briefing, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin announced in a tweet, "Diplomatic protest fired off."

Esperon noted that the Chinese vessels have withdrawn as of Tuesday, probably due to bad weather. He said only one Chinese Coast Guard ship remained in the contested area, along with three Chinese fishing boats.

This comes just three months after the government in April heavily protested the swarming of over 200 Chinese vessels around Pag-asa. Ramon Tulfo, President Rodrigo Duterte's special envoy to China, said in June that the Chinese government has removed some 100 vessels from Pag-asa Island. The Armed Forces' Western Command spotted only 18 Chinese ships as of June 5.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said the Philippines should just keep on protesting. "Otherwise it’s an implied admission that we allow them to do that and we should not allow that," he told reporters.

The presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa 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. A July 2016 arbitration ruling 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, however, rejects the tribunal's decision and insists on its sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea, supposedly based on historic rights.

Meanwhile, Esperon said the note verbale that the government has filed also protested the passage of Chinese warships in Sibutu Strait, an internationally-recognized shipping lane south of Tawi-Tawi, without informing Philippine officials.

"Customarily... lahat ng (all the) military vessels that pass through our territory... ask for diplomatic clearance. Nagkataon na (It just happened that) in our records we don't have it in record that China asked for diplomatic clearance," Esperon said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier told CNN Philippines it seems the Chinese warships deliberately tried to avoid being detected, saying they sailed through Sibutu Strait with their automatic identification systems (AISs) turned off. The International Maritime Organization requires that all ships of at least 300 gross tonnage carry AISs, which would send the ships' information to other vessels and to coastal authorities.