By Aaron Recuenco
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has monitored the incursion of a Chinese military surveillance ship and four warships into Philippine waters in five incidents in the past two months.
Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commanding general of the Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom), said his men monitored the entry of two warships in July while three more were reported this month– all of them at the Sibutu Strait.
Sibutu Strait is a channel that separates Sulu archipelago from Borneo but the five Chinese naval vessels were seen in Philippine waters.
While the area is considered as international waters where the passage of foreign vessels is allowed, Sobejana said there are still protocols that must be followed.
“Since these are warships, their entry into our territory should be coordinated,” said Sobejana.
The official said the Chinese warships could not claim innocent passage in the area since protocol dictates that armed vessels like warships must coordinate with the country which has rights over the waters where the military vessels would pass.
Sobejana said there were instances that the Chinese warships veered away from the sea lanes which allow innocent passage.
“It was not innocent passage because innocent passage means there is a straight lane where the vessels would pass. If you veer away from that straight line, that is no longer considered as innocent passage,” said Sobejana.
Sobejana said they already filed a report with the AFP leadership on the incursions that they have monitored.
Included in the report was the incident where a Chinese warship crew noticed that their presence was spotted by AFP naval and air assets. This prompted the vessel to immediately sail away from Philippine waters.
“We informed the national leadership in order for them to engage with their counterparts at the Department of Foreign Affairs or any of the attaches there in Manila,” said Sobejana.
Aside from the Chinese naval vessels, large Chinese fishing vessels are regularly being monitored to be intruding into Philippine waters.
The Philippines is locked in a territorial dispute with China and other neighboring countries over the West Philippine Sea.
The Aquino administration has filed and won a case against China in the international court over the latter’s nine-dash line which claims almost all of the South China Sea.
But the Duterte administration opted for friendly ties with China that include loan packages.
President Duterte said that he would mention the Hague ruling when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping by the end of this month amid intense criticisms over his administration’s alleged soft stance against China.