MANILA has filed a diplomatic protest against China, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said, after the military over the weekend reported more than 600 Chinese vessels had been circling Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) since January.

Panelo told reporters the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) had filed the protest and that the military report was “definitely” a point of concern.

“The mere fact that they’re there, staying there for a week, why? What are you doing there?” Panelo said.

“Let us see how they (China) will respond to the diplomatic protest,” he said.

Panelo said that if confirmed, he would “politely ask” Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to explain and stop the activities.

Lt. Col. Elpidio Factor of the military’s Western Command was quoted as saying 600 Chinese vessels were circling the island.

Factor said the ships were “occasionally complemented by Chinese Coast Guard vessel to sustain China’s assertive presence in the vicinity of the sandbars.”

600? 275? 200?
Panelo, however, said Vice Admiral Rene Medina of the Western Command reported that only 275 Chinese ships were in the area.

Moreover, Chinese vessels were not “circling,” but stationary. “If they are circling, they are planning something. But, if you are only stationary, maybe you are just watching,” he said.Armed Forces chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. on Monday disputed the figure, telling reporters: “These 200 vessels are plying near the area, they are a mix of vessels [from different countries].”

Zhao, who met with Panelo on Monday afternoon, said China would cooperate with the Philippine government on the verification of the report.

He said that as far as he knew, these were fishermen “from both sides” and not “at all” armed.

“Whether the number is 600, whether they are surrounding the island that you have people there, it is really up to further investigation and verification,” Zhao said.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles also said the Cabinet’s security, justice and peace cluster was conducting an investigation.

The development came days after ex-ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario filed a case against Beijing before the International Criminal Court, over China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released a report earlier this year that Chinese ships had been trooping to Pag-asa since the announcement of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that there would be reconstruction of the runway and the beaching ramp.

‘Keep on fishing’
In a statement on Monday, the Defense department said: “The Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been continuously monitoring the waters around Pag-asa and they are aware of the presence of Chinese vessels and their activities in the area.”

“Just as the Philippines honors our international obligations and protocols, we also expect other countries and their vessels to do the same especially when sailing and fishing in international waters,” it said.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources has asked fishermen to “avoid” Panatag shoal “in the meantime.”

But the Defense department said: “[W]e encourage our fishermen to continue their fishing activities in our waters and Exclusive Economic Zone.”

This article originally appeared on on April 2, 2019.

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