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Philippines protests PRC boats converging on Spratly island town in South China Sea

Philippines protests PRC boats converging on Spratly island town in South China Sea

The Associated Press

The Philippines has protested the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels swarming near a Philippine-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Department of Foreign Affairs lodged the protest after the military monitored about 275 Chinese fishing-militia and military-controlled Coast Guard vessels near Thitu island, which is called Pag-asa by Filipinos, in the Spratlys, the most hotly contested region in the busy waterway.

The Chinese vessels have been sighted more than 600 times near Thitu so far in 2019, military officials said.

What makes their presence so intimidating is they are not fishing. Instead, they seem to simply be occupying the waters near the three sandbars between Thitu and Subi Reef, called Zamora by Filipinos.

Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo said in March 2019 that the Chinese vessels had been blocking the path of his fishermen on their way to the sandbars.

The military played down his statements.

Asked recently if the Chinese flotilla’s presence was a cause for worry, Panelo said: “Anything that concerns the security of the Philippines will always be a concern.”

Philippine military chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. has told local media his Soldiers will patrol the disputed area and urged representatives of both nations to address the massed Chinese presence around the island.

“This is a concern not only for the military, but for other agencies as well, including the Coast Guard. We are looking for ways to address this,” Madrigal told reporters at the opening ceremonies for the annual Balikatan joint military drills between the Philippines and the U.S.

This year’s exercise will include about 8,000 U.S. and Filipino personnel and small contingents from Japan and Australia.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been insistent the exercises are not aimed at China.

But international analysts fear the Chinese presence around Thitu island is a consequence of the president caving under Beijing’s economic and military reassure.

“This is a straightforward intimidation tactic — to interrupt Filipino maritime traffic in very proximity to Thitu,” says Alexander Neill, Shangri-la Dialogue senior fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

(Pictured: The Philippine Navy’s frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar, right, and another ship are shown anchored near the island of Thitu in the disputed Spratly Islands.)

Neill told Philippines media that Beijing had been emboldened by the “inability of Filipino forces to react to probing tactics by Chinese vessels and on the political front by President Duterte, who has warmed to China and is prepared to dismiss the threat by China to Philippines territory.”

While China also claims ownership of Thitu, where Filipino forces and a fishing community can be found, it apparently started to deploy Chinese navy and coast guard ships and fishing boats in sizable numbers in the area in 2017 after Filipinos tried to erect shelters on one of three sandbars that naturally emerged in recent years between Thitu and a Chinese-occupied man-made island called Subi.

China protested the Philippine attempt to occupy the sandbar, prompting Duterte to order a halt to the planned construction, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at the time.