The Philippines has criticised China for “swarming” the largest island it occupies in contested waters in the South China Sea.
“The presence of Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa and other maritime features in the (Kalayaan island group) is illegal,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday (April 4), referring to Thitu Island.
The ministry confirmed military reports that Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships “have been present in large numbers and for sustained and recurring periods – what are commonly referred to as swarming tactics”.
This “(raises) questions about their intent as well as concerns over their role in support of coercive objectives”, it said.
The ministry called China’s actions “a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction”.
“Such actions, when not repudiated by the Chinese government, are deemed to have been adopted by it,” the ministry said.
The statement is surprisingly strong under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has avoided riling Beijing as he pursues warmer relations since taking office in 2016, in exchange for billions of dollars in pledged loans and investment.
It also comes as anti-China sentiments here are being stoked by a Chinese-helmed vessel purportedly dredging soil near a marine reserve south of Manila for an airport expansion project in Hong Kong.
The military reported last week that it spotted more than 200 Chinese boats surrounding Thitu in January and last month, blocking access to sand bars and fishing grounds there.
“This will continue to be the subject of appropriate action by the Philippines,” the Foreign Ministry said, suggesting Manila will take it up in future bilateral talks with Beijing.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said earlier he had already filed a flurry of note verbales over the incident. A note verbale is a diplomatic communication issued in the third person and not signed. It is less formal than a diplomatic note.
The Philippines has occupied Thitu since 1970. The island is part of the Spratlys, a collection of shoals, reefs and other rocky outcrops in the South China Sea that several others are claiming.
At 37ha and 480km west of the main coastline, Thitu is the Philippines’ largest outpost in the South China Sea and the most remote village. About 100 civilians and a small contingent of Marines live there.
In December last year, the Philippines began building a beaching ramp and repairing a runway made up mostly of packed gravel at Thitu. That may have provoked China into deploying its “maritime militia” around the island as a tacit warning to the Philippines, according to Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims in the South China Sea. China claims the Spratlys and most of the South China Sea.
The situation around Thitu is proving to be an irritant in what has otherwise been cordial relations between the Philippines and China under Mr Duterte.
Since he took office, Mr Duterte has made it a policy to avoid provoking China. He sees it as a source of funds for his US$180 billion (S$244 billion) infrastructure spending programme. He has also argued that the Philippine military cannot go toe-to-toe with China’s army, and cannot rely on the United States in case of a conflict in the South China Sea.
He has set aside an international tribunal’s ruling on a case the Philippines filed under his predecessor Benigno Aquino that voided China’s claims. He also barred the Philippine navy from joining US warships in maritime patrols around the South China Sea.
His pro-China policy, however, has yet to gain traction at home.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, a staunch critic of Mr Duterte’s pro-China policy, on Thursday called for a congressional probe.
“What kind of leadership do we have? Our roads are littered with potholes, our bridges are shoddy, and yet China is stealing our own soil to build a runway in Hong Kong?” she said.
Mr Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said the coast guard is looking into the matter.