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5 important facts about China’s alleged incursion in Pag-Asa Island

Not long after the Philippines hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meetings, reports emerged that Chinese vessels have been gathering near Pag-Asa (Thitu) island in the West Philippine Sea. The source of the information is reportedly the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has been monitoring Chinese activities close to our land features in the area.

Magdalo Party-List Rep. Gary Alejano, a former decorated soldier with extensive contacts to former AFP colleagues, revealed the information during congressional hearings. The report is yet to be confirmed by other relevant government agencies, including the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Satellite imagery released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) appears to corroborate Alejano’s report.

DFA Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, however, adopted a relatively a dismissive tone, downplaying the relevance of the reported converging of Chinese vessels near Pag-Asa, where we have a whole community, a mayor, and have maintained an airstrip with permanently stationed troops for at least four decades.

The DFA chief warned against exaggerating the issue, our supposed tendency of being “biased against Chinese ships,” and implied that China was likely engaged in standard Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations. He also implied that what China was doing in the area is analogous to what the United States has been doing in the West Philippine Sea.

There are five things to keep in mind on this issue:

  1. Is our “pragmatic” foreign policy working? This is the first thing we have to consider. Since President Rodrigo Duterte’s ascent to power, we have canceled plans for joint-patrols with America, reduced our treaty ally’s military footprint in the West Philippine Sea by nixing joint military exercises and war games, and refused to raise our arbitration award in international fora to avoid embarrassing China. In short, we did everything in our power to express our goodwill toward China.

    As the rotational chairman of the ASEAN, we effectively shielded China against any criticism over its maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters. We resisted efforts led by Vietnam, and supported by Malaysia and other small claimant states, to adopt a tougher statement against China’s reclamation and militarization activities in the Kalayaan (Spratly) group of islands.

    In exchange, China reportedly promised not to engage in any unilateral and coercive activity in the West Philippine Sea. If Alejano’s report were correct, then we would need to assess whether our current strategy is working. Mind you, Scarborough Shoal, as of this writing, is still under Chinese administrative control and Filipino fishermen are barred from entering the lagoon and accessing the resources within. So we are yet to receive any major concession from China.
  2. China and US are both superpowers, but they aren’t performing the same function in the West Philippine Sea. China is claiming the entire Kalayaan group of islands and much of the West Philippine Sea as part of its nine-dashed-line area of claim, it's national "blue soil", while the U.S. is interested in maintaining access to the West Philippine Sea and broader South China Sea to project power and keep trade networks open.

    One is a territorial-maritime rival, another a treaty ally. The distinction is crystal clear, self-evident and categorical. In fact, the U.S. has been conducting so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to challenge China’s excessive territorial claims and reclamation activities, thus they have been indirectly helping our cause in the area, since no ASEAN country has the naval wherewithal to check China’s ambitions.
  3. The concept of Freedom of Navigation (FON) doesn’t apply to what likely happened in Pag-Asa. In international law, it refers to unfettered and lawful movement beyond maritime jurisdiction of coastal states, namely their 12 nautical miles territorial sea.

    But the report suggests that China was amassing several frigates and coast guards vessels well within 12 nautical miles of Pag-Asa’s territorial sea. In fact, FON is a way of challenging the maritime entitlement of a coastal state. Thus, if China is conducting FON within Pag-Asa’s territorial sea, then it is challenging our claim there.
  4. The concept of “right of innocent passage” is also likely not applicable. The only way China can justify presence of frigates within Pag-Asa’s territorial sea is if its warships were engaged in continuous (from point A to B without interruption or stoppage) and non-threatening movement (radars, intelligence-gathering equipment and weapon systems shut off or not pointing at coastal state).

    Or as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) puts it: "Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State." The prerequisite is recognition of the sovereignty of the coastal state and attendant observance of its security interests. But in this case, it is doubtful whether China observed those basic prerequisites.
  5. It could be either part of an intimidation/encirclement tactic, and prequel to another island building near Pag-Asa. Most likely, China is interested in intimidating the Philippines against such plans to upgrade our facilities in Pag-Asa, making life harder for our community there by encircling our troops and people, and turning the Sandy Cay (a low-tide elevation that lies within Pag-Asa’s territorial sea and expands its maritime entitlement accordingly) into another artificial island similar to the Subi Reef, which is also in close proximity.  

I am, similar to the Duterte administration, for diplomacy and dialogue. But to what end? Protecting our national interest. Let's pursue diplomacy, but in a smart and empowering fashion. Negotiation is the art of winning the best possible outcome for your constituency, not seeking peace at all costs or being friendly to others under all circumstances.

Prof. Richard Heydarian is GMA's Resident Political Analyst, author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific”, and a contributor to Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.