By Arjay L. Balinbin

MALACAÑANG on Monday said the Philippine government has filed a diplomatic protest against the People’s Republic of China over the presence of at least 275 vessels seen by the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Western Command (AFP-WesCom) near the Philippine-claimed Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.

The Chinese government, for its part, said it was cooperating with the Philippines to verify the report.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo, at a news conference at the Palace on Monday morning, said: “I understand we have already issued a diplomatic protest per the Western Command. The DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) has already made a diplomatic protest over it.”

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua visited Mr. Panelo at his office in Malacañang in the afternoon. “As for what is happening, who are there, we are cooperating with the Filipino side to verify whether there is any truth to that kind of report,” Mr. Zhao told reporters.

“I know there are fishermen from both sides. But whether the number is 600, whether they are surrounding the island that you have people, it is really up to further investigation and verification,” he added.

At the briefing, Mr. Panelo clarified that the number of Chinese vessels seen in the area was 275, not 617.

“Anything that concerns the security of the Philippines will always be a concern,” he said before his meeting with Mr. Zhao.

“We will ask them first, why. First, if they acknowledge such fact as determined by us; number two, ask them why they are doing it; number three, we will politely ask them not to,” Mr. Panelo said.

In his interview with reporters before the meeting, Mr. Zhao said: “We’ve been handling this issue through friendly and diplomatic channels, so you don’t have to worry about whether there will be kind of an outbreak of conflict or not. You don’t have to worry about that.”

The Chinese ambassador was also asked to comment on the communication to the International Criminal Court (ICC) filed by former foreign affairs secretary Albert F. del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales against Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials over the harassment of Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea.

Mr. Zhao said, “We don’t think it is a proper action that is based on facts. It’s a fabrication and also a misuse of the mandate of the ICC.”

“It’s a political action viciously targeting the Chinese leadership,” he added.

In a statement he issued after his meeting with Mr. Zhao that day, Mr. Panelo said: “Both officials… give importance to the existing bilateral consultation mechanism between China and the Philippines as an avenue to address possible issues in the West Philippine Sea and to resolve any conflict or misunderstanding that may arise therefrom.”

They also discussed the ICC issue. He said, Mr. Zhao “shares the official position of the Philippines on the possible weaponization of the ICC as a political tool, in stark contrast to the supposed spirit of the Rome Statute.”

For its part, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) clarified reports of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea saying there are only 200 vessels circling near the Pag-asa Island, as opposed to reports of about 600 Chinese ships in the area.

“Around 200 nagpa-ply sa area na ‘yan. Halo-halong vessels (There are 200 vessels that ply in that area. Different types of vessels),” AFP chief Gen. Benjamin R. Madrigal told reporters during the opening ceremony of Balikatan Exercises on Monday, April 1.

He added, “I just talked with WesCom [Western Command] commander, ‘yung report na binanggit around 600 plus (on the report that mentioned about the 600 vessels), …but ‘pag binilang mo ‘yun (if you count them) [those are] sightings but yung (the) involved na vessels (are) way below that.”

“600 is sightings but ‘yung involved na mga vessels is basically the same vessels na paulit-ulit nakikita.” (600 refers to the sightings but the involved vessels are just the same vessels sighted).

In a statement on Monday, the Department of National Defense (DND) said, “The Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been continuously monitoring the waters around Pag-asa and they are aware of the presence of Chinese vessels and their activities in the area. The Department of National Defense, meanwhile, has been communicating reports of the above to the Department of Foreign Affairs for appropriate action.”

“Just as the Philippines honors our international obligations and protocols, we also expect other countries and their vessels to do the same especially when sailing and fishing in international waters.” — with Vince Angelo C. Ferreras