CHINA has expressed alarm over the visit of Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and military generals to Pag-asa Island last Friday, saying the move ran against a “consensus” between Beijing and Manila to peacefully settle their maritime row.
“Gravely concerned about and dissatisfied with this, China has lodged representations with the Philippine side,” said Lu Kang, spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, late Friday.
“This move runs counter to the important consensus reached between the two leaderships which is to properly deal with the South China Sea issue,” he added, referring to talks between Chinese and Philippine officials during President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China in October last year.
Philippine officials said on Friday the C-130 aircraft that carried Lorenzana and top generals of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to Pag-asa Island in the Kalayaan (Spratly) archipelago were “challenged” four times by the Chinese over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
China calls Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest in the Spratlys, “Zhongye Dao” or “Thitu.”
Lorenzana and AFP officials raised the Philippine flag during their visit to the island, a municipality under Palawan province.
Pag-asa has about 300 residents, mostly military personnel and their families. It is also being claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Cabinet official announced that P1.6 billion worth of construction projects would begin at Pag-asa next month, which he said were long overdue considering China’s already extensive infrastructure at nearby Zamora (Subi) Reef.
“This is just a normal visit within our territory, which we believe and we know is [our]territory,” he said.
Lorenzana said Duterte no longer wanted to raise the Philippine flag at Pag-asa to avoid unsettling Beijing, but would like to spend a night there with the troops.
The Chinese foreign ministry’s Lu said Beijing hoped “the Philippine side could cherish the hard-won sound momentum of development the bilateral relations are experiencing, faithfully follow the consensus reached between the two leadership, maintain general peace and stability in the South China Sea, and promote the sound and steady development of China-Philippine relations.”
In July 2016, the Philippines won an arbitration suit against China before a United Nations-backed tribunal, which invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash-line” claim to nearly the whole of South China Sea.
Duterte prefers not to insist on the legal victory, which China refuses to recognize.
Lu also said the Chinese government was verifying claims by a group of Filipino fishermen that they were fired upon by the China Coast Guard last March 27.
Philippine officials are investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat, which the crew said occurred near a Chinese-occupied section of the Spratly archipelago.
“[A]ll sides are in the process of verifying the situation. China also need to check on that,” Lu said.
“But our position on the South China Sea issue is consistent and clear. We would go on working with the Philippine side to properly deal with relevant maritime issues and create favorable conditions for the sound and steady development of bilateral relations,” he said.
“You may have noticed that since President Duterte’s visit last year, bilateral relations have turned around and started to improve apace, with all-around cooperation moving forward steadily. Overall, both sides are able to build upon the consensus of the two leaders and manage maritime issues through negotiations and coordination.”
The Philippine Coast Guard said Friday there were no casualties during the March 27 incident.
“[Princess Johann] was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coast guards on board,” a Philippine Coast Guard statement said.
The armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7 kilometers (2 nautical miles) off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll, it said.
“The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area,” the statement added.
If confirmed, the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since Duterte was elected in mid-2016.