BEIJING – (UPDATED 5:08 p.m) China has lodged representations with the Philippine side following a visit by the Filipino defense and military officials in Pagasa Island, according to the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Malacañang Palace defended the move of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, reminding Beijing that Pagasa island is a municipality of Palawan province.
”Gravely concerned about and dissatisfied with this, China has lodged representations with the Philippine side,” Lu Kang said in a press statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry Affairs website.
Last Friday, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Año, along with other military officials, visited Pagasa Island, a Philippine-occupied territory that is part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.
As they approached, the defense chief’s group partly intercepted radio transmissions from China, warning them about transgressing Chinese territory. The Philippine side ignored this and Lorenzana proceeded to Pagasa.
Palace: Lorenzana looking after constituency
Malacañang Palace, meanwhile, brushed aside Beijing’s complaint about the visit of Lorenzana and China’s radio challenge to the DND chief, who was warned that he was transgressing Chinese “territory” when he and his team were sailing to Pagasa.
Palace officials said the visit of Lorenzana and party to Pag-Asa island is part of the government’s task to look after its constituency, reminding its giant neighbor that Pag-asa is a municipality of Palawan province.
“The visit of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to Pag-asa Island is part of the efforts to improve the safety, welfare, livelihood of Filipinos residing and living in the municipality of Kalayaan which is part of the province of Palawan,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a statement Sunday.
“The Philippines has long been undertaking customary and routine maritime patrol and overflight in the West Philippine Sea which are lawful activities under international law. Such flights will likewise enable us to reach our municipality,” Abella added.
In a separate statement, DND public affairs service chief Arsenio Andolong said: “The visit to Pag-asa is part of Sec Lorenzana’s many responsibiliites as Head of the DND. He routinely inspects all facilities under the Department’s administrative supervision. Pag-asa Island is one those facilities. The trip was meant to see what is needed to improve the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos on the island, who rely on their government to see to their welfare in such a far-flung place.”
Lu said the move of the Philippines defense and military officials has negated the important consensus reached between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
”This move runs counter to the important consensus reached between the two leadership, which is to properly deal with the South China Sea issue,” Lu said.
Lu said China is hoping that the Philippine government would continue to cherish a five-decade China-Philippines bilateral relations which was rejuvenated under the leadership of President Duterte.
”We hope that the Philippine side could faithfully follow the consensus reached between the two leaderships, maintain general peace and stability in the South China Sea, and promote the sound and steady development of China-Philippine relations,” he said.
Since President Duterte’s visit to China last year, Lu said China and the Philippines have been keeping good communication to properly manage and resolve the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
”We hope that this momentum can continue,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry official said.
President Duterte is scheduled to return to Beijing next month to participate in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
In media reports, Lorenzana described the trip to Pagasa Island as a “normal visit within our territory”.
”We believe and we know that this is our territory and I am just visiting to look at the conditions of our people here,” the top Filipino defense official said.
Pagasa Island was occupied by the Philippines in the late 1960s and is categorized as a fifth-class municipality of Palawan province.
Lorenza has revealed a plan to set aside at least P1.6 billion to develop Pagasa Island and a proposal by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to build a fish port in the area.
Harassment of Filipino fishermen
Earlier, China said it will look into reports that Filipino fishermen have been driven away allegedly by the Chinese Coast Guard from Union Bank in the South China Sea.
”I honestly do not know anything about what you said. You yourself mentioned that the vessels are unidentified, and all sides are in the process of verifying the situation. China also needs to check on that,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu said at a press conference.
The Philippines’ foreign affairs and national defense departments are still confirming media reports on the harassment of the Filipino fishermen.
Lu said China will continue to work with the Philippine side to “properly” resolve the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea maritime and territorial dispute under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte.
”Our position on the South China Sea issue is consistent and clear. We would go on working with the Philippine side to properly deal with relevant maritime issues and create favorable conditions for the sound and steady development of bilateral relations,” he said.