CHINA HAS assured the Philippine government it will not occupy Pag-asa Island in the Kalayaan Group of Islands located off Palawan, Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana said on Wednesday.
The Philippines is trusting China on its word, but Mr. Sta. Romana said it will remain on high alert in asserting its sovereign rights over the island, which is inhabited by a small community and is home to military facilities.
”In terms of Pag-asa, through the diplomatic discussions, the Chinese have sought to reassure us that they have no intention to use force or to occupy Pag-asa,” Mr. Sta Romana said in a televised briefing on the Philippines’ participation on the Belt and Road Forum in China, Wednesday.
”But, you know, the diplomatic action is take them on their word, but verify and keep your vigilance high. So, trust, but verify.”
Mr. Sta. Romana noted that the presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-Asa Island was among the issues tackled by the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in early April.
During the discussions, he said their counterparts committed to keep an “appropriate distance” to prevent the issue from escalating.
”The Chinese have also given the assurance that the traditional fishing rights of the Filipino fisherman there will be safeguarded, together with the Chinese,” Mr. Sta. Romana said.
”What we are hoping for and what we’ve communicated is self-restraint, mutual self-restraint for both sides to avoid any miscalculation and any conflict,” he added.
In a related development, National Security Adviser Hermogenes C. Esperon Jr. said the Philippines is pushing for the declaration of marine protected areas in the highly-contested West Philippine Sea.
“That’s really in the discussions. We want to propose that because I’m sure they would also want to preserve or take care of the fisheries resources and all other things that are within that marine protected area. We did it in (the) Philippine Rise so we would like to do it somewhere in the Ayungin area,” said Mr. Esperon in a chance interview with reporters on Wednesday, April 24.
The statement comes after the reported harvesting of giant clams by Chinese vessels in the Panatag, also known as Scarborough, Shoal.
He added, “If we prohibit people from going there then we should do it to everyone. That is why we are designating the area so that we could concentrate our enforcement forces there,” noting that a protected area declaration would be useless if there would be no security forces to monitor and implement the policy.
Mr. Esperon noted that the government, through the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, has been guarding the country’s fishing waters.
“May ginagawa din ang BFAR ngayon, ‘yung (BFAR is also doing something, the) 24 fishing grounds. These are the, from the north all the way to the Sulu … east and west (we will designate places) where we could have task groups or smaller task forces that will get together and enforce fisheries not only against unregulated or illegal fishing, unreported violations but also to nurture, shepherd or take care of the fisheries,” he said.
In a separate statement, Mr. Esperon also said that the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea is “illegal and a clear violation of our sovereign rights and economic jurisdiction as defined in the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).”
”We maintain that the Kalayaan Island Group, and all the features in the West Philippine Sea, are subject to the effective and exclusive control and management of the Philippines,” he said. — Charmaine A. Tadalan and Vince Angelo C. Ferreras