THE Chinese ships earlier sighted around an atoll in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) have left the area, the military said Wednesday, quashing reports that China has taken over the Quirino atoll.
The commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command said there is no truth to reports that China occupied the atoll near Palawan province.
“That’s not accurate. That’s not true,” said Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez on the alleged Chinese occupation of Quirino (Jackson) Atoll.
Lopez said 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 stressed.
The Department of Foreign Affairs also 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 department said in a statement.
It added that Philippine officials are monitoring the situation and reiterated its call on China “to exercise self-restraint from the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes in the South China Sea and affect peace and stability in the region.”
China confirmed that they 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,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, stressing though that China had indisputable sovereignty over the atoll.
Lopez said sightings of Chinese ships are common.
“The Chinese can be anywhere. Sometimes they are reported in Pagasa (island). They can be anywhere. It just happened that they were chanced upon by the fishermen and reported their presence,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter earlier warned China against what he described as “aggressive” actions in the West Philippine Sea, including the recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the disputed territory.
“China must not pursue militarization in the South China Sea,” Carter said. “Specific actions will have specific consequences.”