The Philippines on Wednesday reported that the Chinese vessels sighted stationed at one of the Philippine-claimed atolls in the contested Spratly Islands had left the area, but still continued its call for Beijing to exercise self-restraint.
Speaking to reporters at his office, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario corrected earlier reports that China had taken control of the Quirino atoll, also known as Jackson atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef located 140 nautical miles from Palawan. News reports quoting Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-Onon Jr. said at least five Chinese vessels—three from the Chinese Coast Guard and two from the Chinese Navy—were stationed near the atoll, keeping Filipino fishermen at bay.
“The department has received an initial report from our defense authorities that two weeks ago Chinese Coast Guard vessels were sighted at the Quirino atoll and that there were no more sightings of Chinese vessels in the area as of today,” Del Rosario told reporters at his office on Wednesday afternoon.
“The information about the Chinese occupation may be inaccurate. But that is my take of the situation. They may go back tomorrow, they may not,” Del Rosario said when asked about the news headline on Chinese occupying a new marine feature in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has been fighting for its rights over the West Philippine Sea, the waters within the 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, through two tracks—diplomatic and legal.
The Philippines has been pushing for its fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the early conclusion of a legally binding sea conduct, as well as pursuing an arbitration case against Beijing’s nine-dash line claim.
A ruling by the United Nations arbitral tribunal in the Hague is expected by April or May.
Asked for actions taken to prevent further Chinese incursions, Del Rosario said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) hoped that talks about the Philippines’ joint patrols with the United States would soon materialize.
“There is a suggestion of undertaking joint patrols so that is being looked at. There has been enough talk about the fact that it is being considered,” Del Rosario said. RC