Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua has spoken for the first time about the latest incident involving Manila and Beijing at Sandy Cay in the disputed West Philippine Sea, saying "that issue has been successfully addressed through diplomatic channels."
"Don't worry," Zhao told journalists at a diplomatic reception Monday evening, referring to China's reported deployment of Chinese Navy, Coast Guard ships and a flotilla of paramilitary fishing forces near Sandy Cay, a strip of sandbars near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, which Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned amounted to an "invasion."
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano disagreed with Carpio's pronouncements and declared without elaborating that the issue has been resolved quietly and diplomatically by the Philippines and China.
Zhao backed Cayetano's remarks but also did not elaborate on the touchy issue.
President Rodrigo Duterte also said he was assured by China, through Zhao, that it will not invade the sandbars.
According to Duterte, China was only patrolling the area contrary to Carpio's claim that Chinese vessels have occupied the feature.
"China assured me that they will not build anything there," Duterte told journalists last month. "I called the Ambassador, he said, 'We will assure you that we are not building anything there,'" Duterte said, referring to Zhao.
Initially, the Sandy Cay incident, the latest issue in the disputed West Philippine Sea to emerge between China and the Philippines, appeared poised to spoil the much improved relations between the Asian neighbors under Duterte and Xi.
But Cayetano later spoke in public amid growing speculations about the incident and gave assurances that the issue has been resolved diplomatically.
Cayetano and other officials have not divulged any details of what actually transpired at Sandy Cay.
A recent wire news report, quoting Philippine security sources, said that China has actually suspected that the Philippines has plotted to occupy the sandbars, which lies within Pagasa Island's 12 nautical mile territorial waters.
China deployed three navy vessels, coast guard ships and a flotilla of fishing boats to Sandy Cay in mid-August after it spotted Filipino fishermen, on board boats, set a foothold on the sandbars, the report said.
The report quoted a senior Philippine diplomat as saying that China "is concerned that we will build."
China insists “indisputable” and “historical” claim over virtually the entire South China Sea. Some parts of waters that fall within Manila’s exclusive economic zone was renamed West Philippine Sea by the Philippine government.
China’s aggressive actions and growing military presence in the potentially oil-rich waters, where Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims, have sparked concerns among many countries, such as the US, Japan and Australia. They feared that China’s actions would impede freedom of navigation and overflights in South China Sea—one of the world's most vital commercial and strategic waterways.
In July 2016, the arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled heavily in favor of the Philippines when it invalidated China’s historical and massive claim in South China Sea.
Duterte has set aside the ruling, but vowed to raise it with China “at a proper time.” —KG, GMA News