A Philippine congressman has expressed alarm over “extraordinary activities” of Chinese ships near Pag-asa (also known as Thitu) Island in the South China Sea.
Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano said the fleet was composed of two frigates, a coastguard vessel, two large fishing vessels and numerous maritime militias.
“The Chinese may have a sinister plan to occupy sandbars just west of Pag-asa that belong to us. There is also information that it prevented or blocked our Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship in the area,” he told Rappler today (Tuesday, August 15).
Alejano raised this to Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in the House of Representatives during deliberations on the defence department’s budget yesterday.
At a press conference today, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said they were still verifying the report.
Alejano, a former marine officer, said he received the information from contacts in the military. The ships have been there since Saturday, he said.
Pag-asa, one of the biggest islands in the Spratlys, is occupied by about a hundred Philippine nationals. Chinese ships frequently pass near the island because it is close to China’s Subi Reef, which is 20 nautical miles to the southwest.
But the Chinese ships have not previously been spotted close to the sandbars less than three nautical miles north of Pag-asa.
Lorenzana told the committee that troops stood ready to defend the country’s territory in any event of attack.
“It would be a very serious thing if the Chinese will occupy any of the islands, even the islands that are far away. That would be a very serious issue,” he said.
Alejano has also expressed concerns that China would use “maritime militias” – such as civilian fishermen – to attack Pag-asa Island.
“They are civilian fishermen using smaller boats but were enlisted by Chinese military to achieve their objectives like blocking, ramming, and harassing our fishermen and government vessels,” he said.
Lorenzana said he was counting on China not to occupy more territories in the South China Sea, based on a “modus vivendi” that he said was brokered by Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
“There is status quo now that is happening in the South China Sea brokered by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
“According to him, the Chinese will neither occupy new features in the South China Sea nor are they going to build structures in Scarborough Shoal,” he told the committee.
Lorenzana visited Pag-asa in April after President Duterte canceled plans to plant the Philippine flag there.
The government has allocated 1.6 billion pesos to the island to repair facilities such as the dilapidated runway.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a waterway through which about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims in the area.
China has built seven islands upon reefs in disputed areas, three of which are apparently capable of accommodating fighter jets. They have runways, radars and surface-to-air missiles.