The Philippines government on Tuesday denied a lawmaker’s claim that China was preparing to invade a sandbar near a Manila-claimed island in the disputed Spratly chain in the South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the Philippine government quietly inquired about the claims publicized by opposition Rep. Gary Alejano and was assured the Chinese had no intention of setting anchor near Pag-Asa, the second largest island in the chain.
“Let me assure you that there are no problems in that area,” Cayetano told reporters. “If there had been a problem, it was solved diplomatically. It is not true that there was an attempt to invade.”
While not disclosing specific details of what he had discussed with the Chinese, Cayetano blamed Alejano, a former Marine captain, for issuing press statements that had the wrong facts.
“So wrong premise, wrong conclusion,” Cayetano said, stressing the defense establishment has denied Alejano’s allegation.
Alejano has called on President Rodrigo Duterte’s government to file a diplomatic protest against China, saying he received intelligence reports about several Chinese ships, including two warships, being spotted near Pag-asa. The Chinese flotilla included a coast guard ship and two large fishing boats escorted by a maritime militia.
His allegation came shortly after China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed early this month to a framework for talks on a “code of conduct” in the sea region. Both sides expect to begin negotiations for the code later this year, in time for a leaders’ annual summit scheduled in November.
The Spratly islands are believed to lie atop vast mineral deposits and overlapping claims in the region has been cited as a potential powder keg for violence. Besides the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have territorial claims.
Congressman: Chinese flag spotted
On Tuesday, Alejano said that despite Cayetano’s assurances, intelligence data indicated that “a Chinese flag mounted on a steel pipe was discovered on a sand cay” just about seven nautical miles off Pag-asa.
“It was discovered around third week of July 2017. A Chinese vessel allegedly erected the said three-meter (10-foot) high Chinese flag on a sand cay which is known to be within a Philippine-controlled area,” he said.
He said this belied Cayetano’s claim the Chinese just passed through the area and there was nothing wrong with Beijing exercising its “freedom of navigation operations” in the sea region, the same rights the United States had invoked in the past.
“These recently reported incidents only reveal that Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea have not stopped amid warmer relations between the Philippines and China,” he said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
“Furthermore, this contradicts China’s supposed commitment to peace and stability in the area through maintaining the status quo.”
Alejano called on the foreign office to be transparent on issues concerning its territorial integrity. “Their denial or silence and inaction are not helping while things like these happen on the ground,” he said.
Duterte: No risk of war
On Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte said there was no need to be alarmed about the recent developments and that he would not risk going to war.
“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?” Duterte asked.
The president said the incident did not count as an invasion and he was assured the Chinese ships were there in the area on friendly terms.
“What invasion? It is not true what they are saying,” he said. “They are just there, but they are not claiming anything.”
He stressed that China’s envoy to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, assured him there were no plans build structures on the cay.
Sandy Cay is strategic because the sandbar had over the years accumulated so much pulverized corals that it could be considered a high tide elevation similar to an island feature.
Acquiring sovereignty over Sandy Cay would allow China to legitimize its claim over a nearby reef called Subi and therefore remove it, theoretically, from the Philippines’ continental shelf, according to analysts.
Duterte dismissed that as speculation.