Malacañang: Chinese vessels should leave West Philippine Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 10) — Malacañang on Wednesday urged China to withdraw its vessels from the West Philippine Sea, following reports of more Chinese ships spotted near another Philippine-occupied island.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the government will again file a diplomatic protest once it has verified that some Chinese vessels are around Kota Island, also known as Loiata Island and nearby Panata Island or Lankiam Cay in the disputed Spratlys. This is on top of over 200 Chinese vessels found swarming around Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest islands in the Spratlys and seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan.

"They should (go away). They have no business being there," Panelo said when asked if the Chinese vessels should leave.

He called it an "assault" to the country's sovereignty. "If they continue to be present in our territory then it is an assault to our sovereignty."

Duterte on April 4 said he would ask his soldiers to "prepare for suicide mission" if China does not heed his warning to lay off Pag-asa Island where its vessels have been spotted. Duterte, however, stressed he'd rather go into a compromise instead of an all-out war with the East Asian giant.

Panelo on Wednesday explained that the President was hoping that the Chinese vessels would leave the contested waters in response.

"Perhaps what he's referring to is they leave the place then we maintain our trade relations… They cannot be staying there forever," Panelo said.

In July 2016 ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims to the South China Sea. It recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone where China has built artificial islands, prohibited Filipino fishermen from fishing and interfered in petroleum exploration.

The Duterte administration has been criticized for pursuing friendlier ties with China despite Beijing's rejection of the arbitral ruling. When asked why the Palace is now giving "stronger" statements on the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, Panelo said the government "will always assert sovereignty when it is being impaired or assaulted."

He added the government was still validating reports in the past. "It's true pala (after all) so we complain, we protest," he said.

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said Beijing is verifying reports that its vessels have been surrounding Pag-asa. He said the ships may be manned by "unarmed" Chinese fishermen, but Malacañang said reports from the military suggest militiamen have been deployed there.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr., the country's diplomat, said last week that he "fired off (a) salvo of diplomatic notes" against China over the swarming of its vessels in Philippine waters.

In a Twitter post responding to a blogger's tweet, Locsin said he sent the diplomatic notes to Beijing before his first official trip there on March 18 to 21.