By Martin Sadongdong
A high-ranking official of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) explained on Sunday that a Malaysian Navy ship recently seen passing through the waters of Tawi-Tawi was mistaken by local government officials to be a Chinese warship.
Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the AFP-Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), said Taganak, Tawi-Tawi Mayor Hadji Moh Faisal Jamalul reached out to him to report the presence of a foreign vessel spotted by fishermen near the Turtle Group of Islands in the southern part of the province last August 2.
“He misidentified the Malaysian Navy as the Chinese Navy passing through our boundary with Malaysia. I just want to correct that information, that is not the Chinese Navy but the Malaysian Navy with all due respect to our good mayor in Taganak,” Sobejana said in a radio interview over DZBB.
Sobejana disclosed that a bilateral exercise with the Malaysian Navy was conducted earlier this month to ensure that there will be no more incursions of foreign vessels in the area.
The exercise was prompted by the repeated “uninformed” passage of Chinese warships along Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi since February of this year.
“Since August 2, there were no more incursions by foreign vessels,” Sobejana said.
“I think the leadership of China issued a guidance to its Navy not to immerse in our territory without coordination or advance information with us,” he continued.
Meanwhile, the WestMinCom chief admitted that foreign vessels need not seek prior coordination when passing through internationally acknowledged “sealanes of communication,” such as the Sibutu Strait.
“Sibutu Strait is a sealane of communication. It means that big vessels are passing through it from one country to another and we acknowledge that. We do not object that. In fact, it is our responsibility to ensure their safe passage,” Sobejana said, noting some provisions in the international treaty United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“Roughly US$51 billion a year of shipments are passing through there a year so we must ensure their safe and secured travel, that is called ‘innocent passage,'” Sobejana explained.
The principle of innocent passage was indicated in Section 3, Article 45 of the UNCLOS.
But the case for the foreign warships are different, Sobejana noted, as these vessels need to secure first a “diplomatic clearance” before making a pass in a State’s territorial waters.
“It is more of a gesture of respect so that we are aware of their presence and we will not be alarmed. We are having reservations with the Chinese ships because number one, they are turning off their AIS [automatic identification system] and they refuse to answer when we call them,” he stressed.
In several instances that Chinese warships were seen passing through Sibutu Strait from February to August 2019, the military said they had been turning off their AIS and only backed down when confronted by Philippine military ships.
Sobejana said it is “hard to speculate” but added they cannot dismiss the possibility that the Chinese warships committing an uninformed passage along Sibutu Strait were spying on the Philippine military.
“That is why our military at the national level continues to engage the Chinese Embassy to this effect. I’m sure the Chinese leadership is already aware of this,” he stated.