The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Saturday, March 4, spotted 44 Chinese vessels – including one each from their navy and coast guard – anchored near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, the largest island in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) which serves as the seat of the local government of Kalayaan town in Palawan.
In a statement, the PCG said People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessel “UBN,” a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with bow number 5203, and 42 suspected Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels were spotted approximately 4.5 to eight nautical (NM) miles from Pag-asa Island which are “clearly inside the land feature’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea.”
“The PLA Navy vessel and CCG 5201 have been observed to be slowly loitering within the surrounding waters of Pag-asa Island with a distance of eight nautical miles and four nautical miles, respectively,” the PCG said.
“Fourteen suspected CMM vessels are anchored within the vicinity of Pag-asa Cay 3 with an estimated distance of four NM west of Pag-asa Island, while the other 28 suspected CMM vessels are monitored to be within the area of Pag-asa Cay 4,” it added.
The PCG denounced the intrusion of Chinese vessels in the Philippines’ territorial waters, saying it was a “blatant violation” of the country’s sovereignty.
“Their continuing unauthorized presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity,” it noted.
Pag-asa Island is home to more than 400 Filipinos, including some 70 children, along with stationed military, law enforcement, and civilian government personnel. It is located about 480 km west of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan and is equipped with an airstrip and a beaching ramp.
But China challenges the Philippines’ ownership of the island, calling it as Zhongye Dao which they said is part of their territorial waters under the so-called nine-dash line basis.
This was already debunked when in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a landmark ruling in favor of the Philippines’ protest against China to junk the latter’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, including the WPS.
Despite this, China never acknowledged the international tribunal’s verdict and continues to tighten its grip on the key waterway.
Just last month, a CCG vessel directed a military-grade laser towards a PCG vessel near Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in WPS, causing temporary blindness among several Filipino crew.