Malacañang has no information about the reported lingering presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea based on data obtained by a United States-based technology firm.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque has deferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to verify the reported stay of the foreign vessels in local waters and decide whether or not to file a diplomatic protest.
“Unang-una, hindi ko po alam kung totoo iyan because ang naging sistema na po natin ay ang National Task Force on West Philippine Sea ay bibigyan po tayo ng data kung ano ang nangyayari sa West Philippine Sea. Wala naman po akong natatanggap na ganitong report (First of all, I don’t know if that is true because our system is the National Task Force on West Philippine Sea provides us with data on what’s happening in the West Philippine Sea. I have not yet received such report),” Roque said during a televised press briefing Tuesday, May 25.
“Hindi ko nga po alam kung totoo ito o hindi. At iniiwan na po natin sa DFA para tingnan kung tama ito at kung tama ito, sila na po ang magdidesisyon kung dapat bang mag-file ng diplomatic protest o hindi (I don’t know if the report is true or not. We will leave to the DFA to verify if there is any truth to the report. If it is true, they will decide whether or not a diplomatic protest should be filed),” he said.
Simularity, a US-based geospatial imagery and data analysis company, reported that around 120 Chinese vessels were spotted still staying within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The ships were reportedly seen on the Philippine side of Tizard Bank in the Spratly Islands.
Satellite images released by the US firm dated April 28 showed that 11 vessels in Julian Felipe Reef, 158 ships near McKennan (Hughes) Reef, and 87 ships near Burgos (Gaven) Reef. By May 13, satellite photos did not detect any ship in Julian Felipe Reef and McKennan Reef. Instead, around 234 Chinese vessels were reportedly spotted in Burgos Reef.
The Palace however was apparently no longer surprised with the presence of the ships in Burgos Reef since it remained “occupied by China.”
“Mayroon po silang artificial island doon na parang base militar. Sinasabi ko lang po, kasi ito iyong lugar kung saan diumano ay mayroong 234 ships (They have an artificial island where a military base is apparently built. I’m just saying this because 234 ships were seen there),” Roque said.
On the reported 15 foreign vessels spotted near Pag-asa Island, Roque said it must be determined if these ships are sailing within 12 nautical miles of the island. “Talagang iyan po ay labag dahil ang territorial sea po ay nasa sobereniya ng ating bayan (That will be a violation because we exercise sovereignty over the territorial sea),” he said.
Roque, however, stressed that it was important to ensure the supply route as well as fishing activities in the local waters are not being disrupted.
“Kagaya ng aking sinabi po ‘no, ang importante, hindi po nagkakaroon ng hadlang sa pagdi-deliver ng supplies natin sa Pag-asa at wala pong mga mangingisda natin ang pinagbabawalan na mangisda (Like I said, it is important that nothing blocks the delivery of our supplies to Pag-asa and no fisherman is being prohibited from fishing),” he said.
A government task force earlier denounced the presence of more than 200 ships believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel at the Julian Felipe Reef, which were spotted last March.
Manila filed diplomatic protests against the unlawful stay of the Chinese vessels and demanded their withdrawal from the area. The Chinese embassy in Manila claimed that these were fishing vessels taking refuge from rough seas.
The task force later reported that some Chinese ships reportedly left the reef but dispersed to other parts of the West Philippine Sea. The government deployed ships to conduct sovereignty patrols in the area following the incursion of the foreign vessels into local waters.
Criticized for his alleged soft stance towards China, President Duterte recognized Beijing as a good friend but assured Filipinos that he would not compromise the nation’s claims over the West Philippine Sea. He also ordered local ships to continue their patrol of the territorial waters.
Duterte, who forged closer ties with Beijing at the start of his term, has also barred his Cabinet from talking about the territorial conflict in public.