CHINA indeed sent vessels around an atoll in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to tow a grounded Filipino fishing vessel, an action reported earlier as occupation of an island near Palawan, a military official confirmed on Friday.
According to Capt. Cherryl Tindog, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command, it was a Chinese rescue and salvage ship, not Chinese Coast Guard boat, that was spotted towing a grounded Filipino fishing vessel at the Quirino (Jackson) Atoll on February 22.
The unmanned fishing vessel reportedly ran aground in November last year.
Tindog said the Chinese ship has since left the area.
“Nung sumunod na mga patrols natin, mga Filipino fishing vessels na lang na nasa-sight natin [During our follow-up patrols, what we saw were Filipino fishing vessels],” he added.
It was not known where the fishing vessel was taken and the Western Command (Westcom) is coordinating with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority to determine if the owner of the vessel had reported if the ship was turned over by the Chinese.
Earlier Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China sent vessels to the Quirino atoll to tow a grounded ship.
“To guarantee safety of navigation and of work conditions, China urged fishing vessels near the site to leave,” according to Hong.
He, however, insisted that China had indisputable sovereignty over the atoll.
Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez, Westcom commander, had denied that China occupied the atoll.
“That’s not accurate. That’s not true,” Lopez said of the alleged Chinese occupation of Quirino atoll.
According to him, three to five Chinese ships were earlier sighted in the area but the vessels left on February 24.
“It’s not true that they have control of Quirino atoll. In fact, the last time we flew there, we saw Filipino fishermen. So the report is very inaccurate,” he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said the Chinese vessels are no longer in the atoll.
“The department received initial reports from our defense authorities that two weeks ago, Chinese Coast Guard vessels were sighted in the Quirino atoll and that there are no more sightings of Chinese vessels in the area as of today,” the DFA said in a statement.
It added that Philippine officials are monitoring the situation and reiterated its call on China “to exercise self-restraint [in]the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes in the South China Sea and affect peace and stability in the region.”