MANILA — Chinese vessels likely left Pag-asa Island in the disputed West Philippine Sea due to the looming end of the fishing season, not because of backchannel talks among officials, a maritime law expert said Sunday.
Ramon Tulfo, a broadcaster recently appointed as President Rodrigo Duterte’s special envoy to Beijing, said earlier this week that some 100 Chinese militia boats were “withdrawn” from waters off the Manila-occupied island, citing to an unnamed Chinese official.
He was earlier quoted as saying that during backdoor talks in April, ranking Chinese and military officials promised to “have those ships disappear and withdrawn in no time.”
“Mr. Tulfo’s statement is not really backed up by any prior activities so I also don’t think there’s anything to prove that claim that there were backchannel talks,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“I suspect that the reduction in numbers is really just because of the coming end of the fishing season. We are seeing more inclement weather becoming more frequent there,” he told ANC.
The Chinese, he said, “come and go” in the area depending on the season.
“We shouldn’t see this as necessarily significant, indicating any real change on policy on the part of the Chinese,” said Batongbacal.
Duterte on Saturday said he questioned Chinese President Xi Jinping the last time they met about why Chinese ships were surrounding the island even though Manila would never allow US troops to be stationed there.
Duterte’s remarks come “late” because the issue erupted back in March and April, said Batongbacal.
“These kinds of statement may be useful only for political posturing,” he said.
“When it comes to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army of China) and the military, they know what’s going on because they react only to what they see on the ground,” he added.
Duterte did not mention a specific date of their meeting but he was known to have last met with Xi in April, when he went to Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum.
The island under Palawan is in the West Philippine Sea, the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the disputed waters where the Philippines has long maintained a military detachment. It is also home to a civilian community.
The President said the presence of US soldiers on the Philippine-occupied island could have serious diplomatic implications. The US has been watchful of the situation in the South China Sea, pressing for freedom of navigation in the vital waterway.
Citing his statement to Xi, Duterte said: “I told you, ‘I will not allow, as long as I am President, any American to set foot on that Pag-asa Island because I know it will create really trouble.'”
It was the first time Duterte spoke in detail about the bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader. Malacañang had said in the aftermath of the meet that both sides agreed that “the situation can be managed by the mechanism of bilateral negotiations but it should not affect the cooperation” between the two countries.
The Philippines and China have seen improved ties under the Duterte administration as he shelved a United Nations-backed tribunal’s 2016 ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
China has ignored the decision and ramped up its militarization efforts in the area.
Aside from the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have partial claims to the resource-rich waterway and its myriad shoals, reefs and islands.
The United States, while not a party to the maritime dispute, has been calling for restraint and freedom of navigation on the South China Sea.