National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. denied yesterday that China has occupied the Sandy Cay off Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea although he confirmed the presence of Chinese ships at sandbars near the disputed islands.
“China has not seized sandbars in Pag-asa atoll. There should be no alarm on that as long as they don’t occupy any of the sandbars. There are many Chinese as well as Vietnamese fishing boats in and near Pag-asa Island and its nearby sandbars, collectively called Pag-asa Atoll,” said Esperon, the concurrent chairman of the multi-agency National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.
Pag-asa is the biggest of the Philippine-held islands in the borderline Spratly islands. With a total land area of about 37 hectares, it serves as the seat of the local government of Kalayaan town in Palawan occupied by about 200 people. The islands are under the political jurisdiction of the province but under the “custody and administration” of the Armed Forces.
Sandy Cay, an area situated around 2.5 nautical miles off Pag-asa Island, is situated between Pag-asa and Zamora (Subi) Reef and has been defined as a disappearing high-tide sandbar.
Esperon said the government would not give up an inch of the areas claimed by the Philippines.
“We are not giving away any inch of our claims, nor any part of our entitlements under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) of 1982 and those of PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) tribunal ruling of July 2016,” Esperon added.
On Tuesday last week, Magdalo party list Rep. Gary Alejano said that two Chinese coast guard ships and two Chinese fishing boats are at the sandbars since three days earlier according to the information he has.
Alejano, a former Marines captain, said the Chinese ships even prohibited vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) from going nearby the sandbars, about one to three nautical miles from Pag-asa Island.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said last Saturday Chinese ships have virtually occupied “Sandy Cay”.
Carpio added two frigates, a Chinese coast guard vessel and two military fishing boats were reportedly seen in the vicinity.
“Sandy Cay is a Philippine land territory that is being seized – to put it mildly – or being invaded – to put it frankly – by China,” Carpio said.
Carpio also pressed the government to “vigorously protest” what he labeled as an “invasion” of Philippine territory by China.
The Spratly Islands is assumed to be rich in oil and minerals deposits. It is being claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, and neighboring countries China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
“Pag-asa is in the middle of the Spratlys where we have nine occupied high-tide features, islands,” Esperon said. China is occupying seven recently-reclaimed reefs, three of them have three-kilometer airstrips, he added.
“The nearest Chinese airstrip is in Subi reef which is 12.5 NM (nautical miles) southwest from our Pag-asa. It (Subi reef) used to be a low tide feature but it is now 540 hectares,” Esperon stressed.
On the other hand, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Eduardo Año has declined to confirm or deny the presence of the Chinese ships at the sandbars.