By Dempsey Reyes /Manila Times
Chinese warships have stopped passing through Sibutu Strait, the military said yesterday, days after Malacanang announced that foreign ships must seek permission before entering Philippine waters.
The military’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) said no Chinese warship or vessel had been spotted in the strait since August 5.
Lt Gen Cirilito Sobejana, WestMinCom chief, said the last time a Chinese warship was spotted in the area was on August 4, or two weeks before the Palace announced the new policy on the passage of foreign vessels.
In July, two Chinese warships were seen in the strait, Sobejana said. This month, three Chinese warships were spotted. This prompted the Armed Forces of the Philippines to raise the issue with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which fired off a diplomatic protest.
Maritime expert Ryan Martinson of the US Naval War College earlier said two Chinese warships were spotted within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said since February this year, various Chinese warships were monitored transiting through Sibutu Strait without informing Philippine authorities.
The Palawan-based Western Command (WesCom) of the military also reported that four Chinese ships were seen in the Balabac Strait.
Last week, WesCom also reported that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was monitored near the Philippine-occupied Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the Spratly Group of Islands, while 27 Chinese fishing vessels were also seen near Panata Island (Lankiam Cay), which is also part of the occupied areas of Manila in Spratly.
Sobejana said the Chinese Embassy in Manila had been informed of the incursions in the strait.
“I am sure that they are aware of these incursions,” he said in a radio interview.
The military official said they would abide by the directive of President Rodrigo Duterte to ensure that no foreign warships would enter the country’s territorial waters, particularly along Sibutu Strait.
Roughly $51bn worth of cargo pass through that sealane, according to Sobejana, thus the need to ensure the safe passage of civilian ships.
“So far, we have not seen any problems to any international shipping lines passing by. We are not blocking anyone and no one has been swerving towards the territory of one country, except of course in times of inclement weather,” Sobejana said.
President Duterte had said he would raise the incursion of Chinese ships when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping next week.
Duterte will be in China from August 28 to September 1 for a bilateral meeting with Xi. The president said he would also discuss with his Chinese counterpart the ruling of an arbitral tribunal invalidating China’s claims in the South China (West Philippine) Sea based on its nine-dash-line policy.
Amid the country’s maritime dispute with China, a bill was filed at the House of Representatives seeking the creation of the West Philippine Sea Authority.
House Bill (HB) 363, or the “West Philippine Sea Development Authority Act,” seeks to create the said authority, which will have primary jurisdiction over the development, management and utilisation of all resources within the West Philippine Sea and the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
This refers to maritime areas within 200 nautical miles from the baselines on the western side of the Philippine archipelago, including the Luzon Sea and those within and adjacent to the Kalayaan Island group and Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal.
“Through such authority, our country would be able to develop and harness the revenue-generating potential of the area arising from the capture of fish and fishery products, processing and marketing of all fisheries and aquatic products, marine energy exploration and development, as well as coastal and marine tourism,” Tarlac Second District Rep. Victor Yap, author of HB 363, said.
The corporate body will be attached to the Office of the President and will act as the central administrative and co-ordinating body of national and local government units responsible for fisheries, ecological protection, marine life and other environmental issues within its jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Cagayan de Oro Second District Rep. Rufus Rodriguez also filed HB 3804, which will create the Centre for West Philippine Sea Studies attached to the DFA to study the basis of claims of the Philippines over the disputed territory, as stated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, international law, local laws and historical data.
The center will be headed by an assistant secretary of the DFA.
“It is imperative that a government office be created dedicated exclusively to the West Philippine Sea. It will focus on studying our claims and propose measures on how to defend and prosecute such claims,” Rodriguez said.
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