Defense chief confirms ‘intermittent’ presence of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 20) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed that Chinese ships have been present near Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest islands occupied by the Philippines in the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea.

“There were presence there intermittently but varying in numbers,” Lorenzana said in a text message shared Thursday to Defense reporters.

Lorenzana was asked to confirm the presence of ships from China’s coast guard and its maritime militia around the island, which is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan.

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Greg Poling said Tuesday that China has “maintained a constant maritime militia and [coast guard] deployment around Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island) for 424 days and counting.”

Reacting to Poling, Lorenzana said, “We will not allow anybody, especially outsiders to dictate how we manage our affairs.”

The Defense chief also said they will not act just based on Poling’s tweet.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command said in April last year that they have monitored 275 Chinese ships swarming Pag-asa since the beginning of 2019. The Philippines heavily protested the presence of the Chinese vessels, with the Department of Foreign Affairs even calling it “illegal.”

The DFA again protested in July that same year when hundreds of Chinese vessels swarmed Pag-asa Island once more.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s special envoy to China, Ramon Tulfo, said the following month the ships — which were unarmed and owned by China’s militia — have left the area as “an initial gesture on the part of China to win the trust and confidence of the Philippine government.”

The Philippines calls the areas in the South China Sea that it claims and occupies as the West Philippine Sea. China has built artificial islands, prohibited Filipino fishermen from fishing and interfered in petroleum exploration in some of these areas.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in some sea features within 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 practically the entire South China Sea, supposedly based on historic rights.

CNN Philippines Senior Correspondent David Santos contributed to this report.