PH plans to repair Pag-asa Island 'illegal', says Chinese envoy

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 01 2017 06:37 PM | Updated as of May 01 2017 06:59 PM

The flag of the Philippines and China are raised at the bridge of China's guided missile destroyer Chang Chun (DDG 150). Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

They were supposed to dock in Manila, as most visiting fleets on a goodwill visit often do. But the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy decided to move their port call to Davao City, hometown of the Philippine President who has taken a great liking to them.

On Sunday, in an impressive display of both troop discipline and military capability, three Chinese warships -- the guided missile destroyer Chang Chun (DDG 150), the guided missile frigate Jin Zhou (FFG 532), and replenishment ship Chao Hu (890) -- docked in Davao City's Sasa Wharf, with the men of the Chinese Navy manning the rail fully armed and impervious to the blinding heat of the sun.

"We especially choose the Philippines as the first port call for the oceanic voyage of the Task Group 150, and made a short-notice change of the destination from Manila to Davao to meet the schedule of His Excellency President Duterte," said Admiral Miao Hua, Political Commissar of the China People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy).

Task Group 150's visit to the Philippines is the first time China has returned for a port call since the maritime row began. The last goodwill visit by the Chinese Navy was in 2010, two years before the navy standoff in Scarborough Shoal that marked the start of hostile relations between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippine Navy says PLA Navy's Task Group 150 is based in Shanghai, China, and may not be the actual vessels patrolling the West Philippine Sea. However, it is these Chinese warships that - with complements from the China Coast Guard create the blockades against the Philippine Navy, chase down Filipino fishermen from traditional fishing ground, and are present in the 7 man-made military islands that China has built in the South China Sea.

Now that they come in the name of friendship, the Philippine Navy has no choice but to be the welcoming party for them.

A dragon dance at port opened the arrival ceremony of the Chinese fleet, followed by an indigenous dance from Mindanao. Invited guests waved small Chinese and Philippine flags. Several members of the Chinese media were present to cover the event, and were the only ones allowed aboard the warships to cover the special tour given to Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. Philippine media was restricted to port.

After the tour, Duterte marveled at how advanced the warship's capabilities were, and how she wished the Philippines had those, too.

"Meron siyang dalang mga missile, meron siyang dalang mga torpedos. Hindi naman everday na makakakita tayo ng mga ganito," Duterte said. 

"Especially nung inexplain nila sa atin kung anong kakayanan nung kanilang ship, nakakainggit. Sana sa term ni President Duterte, magkaroon ng kahit man lang 2 para sa Pilipinas."

On Monday, teams from the Chinese and Philippine Navies played basketball and tug-of-war against each other, the first encounter between the two forces since the West Philippine Sea dispute. The Philippine Navy won all games, but both sides ended the games with friendly handshakes and took photographs with each other.

"Mabait naman pala sila, saka magaling mag-laro," said Apprentice Sea Man Joey Vincent Garcia, the best player in the Philippine Navy side.

But this effort to forge a friendship is not enough for China to step back on its claims in the West Philippine Sea, or the entire South China Sea for that matter.

A view of Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. Erik De Castro, Reuters

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippine Zhao Jianhua was asked why Philippine military aircraft and vessel were still being challenged and ordered to leave by the Chinese Navy in the West Philippine Sea. On April 21, the C-130 plane bearing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and top AFP officials was repeatedly challenged and ordered to "go away" by the Chinese military as it traveled to Philippine-occupied Pag-Asa Island.

"It's common practice. In our position, we have the ownership of those islands and reefs. And whichever airplanes or aircraft intrude, we will give them warnings," said Zhao.

Zhao also downplayed reports from Filipino fishermen about being harassed by Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in the Union Banks of the Spratlys.

"I think the reports of harassment has never been verified. It is only reports. I haven't seen any hard evidence supporting that allegation," Zhao said. "I don't think that the small issues will affect the overall direction of our bilateral relationship."

A Philippine flag flutters in Philippine occupied (Pagasa) Thitu island, in disputed South China Sea, as soldiers and civilians sing the country's national anthem. Reuters

Given his assertion of ownership of the South China Sea, Zhao was asked how he viewed the plans of the Duterte government to improve the facilities in the sea areas that the Philippines occupies, like Pag-Asa Island.

"Well our official line is quite clear. We view the occupation by the Filipino, Philippine side, of those islands [as] illegal. And so the buildings on it are also illegal."

The ambassador was ushered away from the press after reporters asked him what China was prepared to do once the Philippines does start its construction which Lorenzana had said would begin before the rainy season in July.

While walking away, Zhao said, "I think the policy is we'll adhere to the peaceful negotiation, to find a peaceful solution. But our position, I have said, we view that as illegal."