Philippines says Chinese boats still roaming near Thitu Island

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

MORE than 40 Chinese boats were still roaming near Thitu Island in the South China Sea, according to the Philippine Coast Guard, weeks after it accused its Chinese counterpart of endangering the crew of a resupply ship in an incident that has stoked long-running diplomatic tensions over China’s expansive claims in the waterway.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, a China Coast Guard ship and at least 42 suspected Chinese maritime militia boats were still roaming about 4.5 to 8 nautical miles from Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, which it calls Pag-asa, it said at a televised briefing on Tuesday.

It sent radio challenges to these Chinese vessels but they have fallen on deaf ears, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay T. Tarriela said.

“Our Coast Guard station in Pag-asa continues to challenge them over the radio, saying that the 12-nautical mile area from Pag-asa Island is part of the territorial sea of the Philippines,” he said. 

He added China’s continued aggression shows that it does not respect Philippine sovereignty over territories in the South China Sea. “They violate our sovereignty. This is inconsistent with the right of innocent passage.”

“The Philippine Coast Guard maintains its commitment to stay true to its responsibility of patrolling our waters in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Tariela said, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“Our coast guard vessel and coast guard personnel stationed on every island in the West Philippine Sea continue to challenge the Chinese maritime militia and China Coast Guard vessel roaming around the West Philippine Sea.”

On Saturday night, the Philippine Coast Guard said the 44 Chinese vessels seen near Thitu Island earlier in the day were clearly inside the Philippines’ 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.

The Chinese Army vessel and Coast Guard ship had been slowly loitering in the surrounding waters of the island, it said.

The Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia have overlapping claims over land features in the South China Sea.

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., 65, took office in June amid tensions at sea and naval competition between the US and China for influence among Southeast Asian countries.

On Tuesday, Mr. Marcos said the Philippines’ archipelagic nature and geostrategic location have been “both a blessing and a challenge” because they require the government to “constantly adapt to become more mobile and agile.”

He made the statement at a flight capability demonstration of the FA-50PH fighter jets and acceptance ceremony for the C295 medium lift aircraft at the Clark Airbase in Pampanga province north of the Philippines.

The new FA-50PH fighter jets would improve the Philippines’ maritime patrol capability, aid the Air Force in monitoring developments within the country’s exclusive economic zone and “provide close air support to our combat troops,” the president said.

“Through the additional C295 aircraft, the Armed Forces of the Philippines will be able to provide more responsive support to government agencies, especially in emergency situations and on humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations,” he added.

Mr. Marcos noted that while the equipment would boost the readiness of the Air Force to respond to any contingencies, “there is still a need to further improve our capabilities to effectively cover our territory.”

“Equally important is to ensure the airworthiness of Air Force assets and the corresponding training of crew and personnel to guarantee the safety of all,” he said. “Hence, it is this administration’s will to remain steadfast in pursuing our modernization efforts.” 

The twin-turboprop transport aircraft, which is made by Airbus Defence and Space, is the “newest generation of tactical airlifter in the light and medium segment that can be used for various missions such as medical evacuation, paradrop/airdrop, civic and humanitarian airlift mission, among others,” the presidential palace said in a statement. 

Mr. Marcos thanked Spain, which helped Manila in the purchase of the three medium lift aircraft, for helping the Philippine Air Force improve its defense capability.

Tensions between the United States and China could worsen in the Indo-Pacific region this year as Washington holds its biggest joint military drills with the Philippines since 2015, according to security analysts.

The two superpowers are expected to use their economic and cultural platforms to gain influence in the region, which has been beset by the South China Sea dispute and tensions between China and self-ruled Taiwan, they said.

The Marcos government has given the US access to four more military bases under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). It also plans to hold sea patrols with the US, Japan and Australia.