DFA: China ships spotted at disputed atoll have left

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed that there have been recent sightings of several Chinese vessels at the Quirino Atoll, which is well within the Philippine territory, but they were gone when the Philippine government checked on Wednesday, March 2.

"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," said the DFA in a statement, which was issued after a newspaper report came out Wednesday that China has stationed up to five ships around the disputed islet included in the disputed Spratly Islands.

In the report, the Chinese vessels supposedly chased away Filipino fishermen when they tried to enter the area as it is considered their traditional fishing ground.

Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., leader of the Philippine-claimed region in Spratly Islands, said while onboard a plane flying over the area for two consecutive days, he sighted five suspected Chinese coast guard and navy ships at the Jackson or Quirino Atoll.

Bito-onon said Chinese government vessels have not been stationed at the atoll in the years he has been passing by the uninhabited, ring-shaped reef.

The Quirino or Jackson Atoll lies several kilometers (miles) from the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, which China occupied in 1995 and has developed into an island with what appears to be a runway. It lies midway between Palawan province and Filipino-occupied Pag-asa or Thitu Island in the Spratlys.

The reported presence of the Chinese vessels came on the heels of China's increased presence in the disputed territories.

"I'm alarmed because we frequently pass by that atoll on our way to Pag-asa," Bito-onon told The Associated Press by telephone.

Filipino, Vietnamese and Malaysian fishing boats have gone to Quirino's vast fishing lagoon for years, Bito-onon said.

Philippine planes landing and taking off at Pag-asa have been warned frequently to stay away by Chinese forces based at the nearby Subi Reef, one of seven reefs in the disputed Spratlys that China has built into islands in the last two years using dredged sand. The plane that he was on last week that flew to Pag-asa was shooed away again by the Chinese at Subi, Bito-onon said.

"When you take off or land, you'll hear their warning: 'You are flying within our security zone, please leave immediately to avoid miscalculation,'" Bito-onon said.

He has said those Chinese warnings are an act of intimidation and show the threat to freedom of overflight in the region.

But despite the current absence of Chinese vessels in the area, the DFA said it will continue to maintain vigilance on the situation in the disputed areas.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said it's uncertain if the Chinese ships would return to the Quirino or Jackson Atoll, adding Philippine defense authorities were constantly monitoring the disputed region.

News reports implying that China has occupied the atoll may not be accurate, he said.

"They might be back tomorrow, they may not, but the defense authorities would have to observe," del Rosario told reporters.

The DFA also renewed its call to China to impose self-restraint in its activities in the areas that could result in tension among the claimant-countries.

"The Department reiterates its call for 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," said the DFA.

Earlier in the day, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it was verifying report that China is allegedly taking over a Philippine island.

"We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area. There are also ships around Second Thomas Shoal so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent," AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said.

"We are deferring comment while our verification process is ongoing. DFA is also lead in commenting on related matters," said Padilla.

The United States and governments that lay claims to parts of the disputed region have expressed alarm over China's island construction, saying it raises tensions and threatens regional stability and could violate freedom of navigation and overflight.

Source: Sun Star

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