Defense chief on Chinese ships: Why the secrecy?

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has stepped up criticism on Chinese ships sailing unannounced into Philippine waters, in what may be taken as a signal of souring relations between the Philippines and China despite assurances to the contrary by Malacañang and by Beijing.

Lorenzana, along with other defense officials, has been reporting such vessels disregarding communications by Philippine authorities. The defense chief particularly noted that Chinese warships had passed through Sibutu Strait near Tawi-Tawi four times since February.

This week, two Chinese survey ships were reported seen within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Ryan Martinson, assistant professor of the China Maritime Studies, tweeted images of the Dong Fang Hong 3 off the waters of Ilocos Norte and the Zhanjian off the waters of the Bicol and Eastern Visayas regions.

“I am not saying that they are up to no good, but why the secrecy? Why turn off your AIS (automatic identification system) and refuse to acknowledge the challenges from Philippine law enforcement agencies? With all these developments we in the defense sector are very much alarmed,” Lorenzana told Inquirer.net on Friday.

“The protocol is for them to ask permission if they want to make research or survey in the waters belonging to us. Once granted, a Filipino marine scientist boards the survey ship and accompanies [them in their] mission,” Lorenzana said.

“That is what the other nations do like the US and France in the recent past. The Chinese did not ask permission,” he added.

File protest

Earlier on Friday, in an ANC interview, Lorenzana said he would ask the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to again file a protest or seek an explanation on what the Chinese ships were doing there.

This prompted Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to tweet later in the day: “OK, got it, General. @DFAPHL firing off diplomatic protest.”

Lorenzana said that “if the intention is only to study the sea or fish or the marine life, then it is not a security threat. But if they [Chinese ships] are doing other things like making surveillance of our positions, then it’s different.”

“That’s the problem, we don’t know it. We don’t have the capability to know,” he added. “We don’t know if the ships are camouflaged as spy ship, masquerading as marine research ship. We don’t know.”

The defense chief suggested getting American assistance in terms of monitoring. “In the WPS [West Philippine Sea], if it is far; our radar cannot see them but other agencies like US, another country who has satellite, they can monitor that.”

Awkward position

President Duterte is scheduled for a fifth visit to Beijing this month, during which he has promised to raise with Chinese President Xi Jinping Manila’s arbitration victory over the disputed South China Sea three years after that ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Historically frosty bilateral relations had warmed under Mr. Duterte, but he is looking increasingly awkward in defending his controversial approach to China amid constant activity by its coast guard, navy and paramilitary fishing vessels in Philippine-controlled areas of the South China Sea.

Malacañang said on Friday there should be courtesy on China’s part in informing the Philippines of the passage of Chinese ships through Sibutu Strait.

“Even on the basis of friendship, then a matter of courtesy require[s] that we should be informed of any passage through our exclusive economic zone,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.

But he also pointed out that “now we do not know actually if the Chinese government allowed this kind of violation because it may be that the warships passed through that without the Chinese government knowing it.”

“That can be possible if there is negligence on the part of those people in command,” Panelo said.

Referring to the President’s upcoming visit to Beijing, Panelo said Mr. Duterte expects to “get something” out of the Philippines’ friendship with China.

“We have to get something out of this friendship,” Panelo said. “I think the joint exploration [of the South China Sea] will be a good one, given the fact that it was the Chinese government that offered the 60-40 deal.”

On Thursday, Mr. Duterte said he would push for the “exploitation of natural resources” in the contested waters, and that he was amenable to the 60-40 sharing deal in favor of the Philippines.

“They have proposed a 60-40, and I am OK with that. But that could be a later topic if we have time,” the President said.

China and the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding last year on a joint oil and gas exploration of the South China Sea.

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