Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island likely to stay, Esperon says

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More than 130 Chinese fishing vessels have been monitored near Pag-asa Island since the start of the year, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon confirms. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 3) — Expect Chinese vessels to continue lingering in the West Philippine Sea, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. said Tuesday.

Esperon told a special congressional committee that the presence of Chinese vessels could be seen as strategic posturing for Beijing, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, including areas Manila occupies and claims as the West Philippine Sea.

More than 130 Chinese fishing vessels have been monitored near Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island since the start of the year, Esperon said, confirming a Palawan-based military report.

"We would expect that they (China) will continue to deploy there," Esperon said. "Not for confrontational activities but for fishing and simply to occupy some space, to deny us some space probably. Nandon sila (They are there)."

Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan and is one of the biggest islands in the contested Spratlys. Philippine troops and a community of fishermen live there.

It is adjacent to Subi Reef, an area the Philippines claims as Zamora Reef, which Beijing has converted into a man-made military island base double the size of the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig.

The presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island last year prompted strong statements from President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, which has been criticized for pursuing friendly ties with China despite the long-standing maritime dispute. The Duterte government invoked the 2016 arbitral ruling for the first time as it asked the Chinese vessels to leave the West Philippine Sea.

Esperon said the Philippine government has received some "positive reactions" to the diplomatic protests it has filed over the presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea.

"Kung minsan nagre-reduce naman sila (Sometimes they reduce deployment). But, ah, they remain in that area, as I said, because they have that big base now," Esperon said.

Bayan Muna Party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate believes reports that these Chinese vessels are "doing not just fishing" but intelligence gathering from China.

Esperon disagrees, saying the vessels near Pag-asa Island could not be part of Beijing's government militia, since they all appear to be unarmed.

In February, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US-based think tank said China has “maintained a constant maritime militia and [coast guard] deployment around Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island) for 424 days and counting.”

The AMTI earlier released photos of two Chinese government vessels it spotted near Pag-asa Island in December 2018 and and January 2019 – a People's Liberation Army-Navy frigate and a China Coast Guard Type 818 cutter. The AMTI added it was convinced dozens of other fishing vessels in the area have all the hallmarks of China's maritime militia "including having no gear in the water that would indicate fishing activity and disabling their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transceivers to hide their activities."

CNN Philippines' Eimor Santos contributed to this report.