Duterte: China not invading Philippine territory

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 22) — President Rodrigo Duterte said China has assured him that it will not invade Sandy Cay, which is Philippine territory in the disputed South China Sea.

Duterte's statement is the first confirmation from the government that there are Chinese vessels in the disputed waters.

Sandy Cay is a sandbar located 4.6 kilometers west of Pag-asa Island, which is 505 kilometers west of Palawan.

President Duterte said the statements of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that Sandy Cay was "being invaded by China" were untrue.

"Di naman totoo yung sinasabi ni (Carpio) [What Carpio is saying is not true]," Duterte told reporters late Monday in a news briefing.

"They are just there, but they are not claiming anything. I have that assurance na hindi 'yan sila mag-occupy anything [I have that assurance that they will not occupy anything]," he added.

The President's statement comes after Carpio said on Saturday that the government should protest the presence of Chinese vessels reportedly blocking Filipino fishermen at Sandy Cay.

Read: Carpio to gov't: Protest 'Chinese presence,' guard sand bar near Pag-asa Island

"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 was part of the official delegation that presented the Philippines' case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Duterte said Chinese fishing vessels in the area are free to enter the waters of Sandy Cay.

"Free for all 'yan [It's free for all]," he said. "Free for all because it's claimed by them. It's claimed by us."

Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, a staunch critic of the President, had cited sources "inside the military who told him that China has deployed vessels up to five nautical miles away from Pag-asa Island since Aug. 12.

Read: Alejano: Chinese vessels seen near Pag-asa islands

The Chinese vessels included two frigates, one coast guard vessel, and two large fishing vessels along with militia, Alejano said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano did not confirm or deny Alejano's claims, but said the "presence of ships alone does not mean anything."

Read: Foreign Affairs Secretary: Chinese vessels in South China Sea 'do not mean anything'

Amid calls for the government to file a diplomatic protest, Cayetano said, "Nagrereklamo pa rin tayo [We are still protesting], it's just that we don't announce it and we don't tell you how we do it."

Meanwhile, Duterte denied reports that Filipino fishermen were being blocked, adding that the Philippine Navy is escorting local fishing vessels.

Carpio and the Philippine team argued that China's "nine-dash line" maritime claim, a purported historical boundary that covers 85 percent of the South China Sea, encroached into the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

In July 2016, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines.

Read: PH wins maritime arbitration case vs. China