Why the secrecy? Lorenzana flags passage of 9 Chinese warships through PH waters

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 16 2019 07:30 PM | Updated as of Aug 16 2019 07:45 PM

MANILA - Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Friday questioned the "secrecy" of Chinese ship passages through Philippine waters, saying a total of 9 warships have passed through Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi by far this year. 

Lorenzana said the 5 Chinese warships spotted sailing unannounced through Philippine waters by the military were different from those he had reported in July.

He said that after he compared his data with the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), he found out that 9 Chinese ships have crossed the southern strait this year. 

None of the warships reportedly made contact or informed Philippine authorities of their presence.

The defense secretary revealed there has been a spike in the number of Chinese military vessels entering Philippine waters this year alone. He admitted he does not know the reason for the spike.

“That is what I want to know. Ang gusto ko pa malaman, saan sila galing? Where did they come from, where are they going? Obviously, they are going back to China. Pero ang mas malaking question, saan sila galing at bakit sila dumadaan sa Sibutu Strait?” Lorenzana said.

(That is what I want to know. What I also want to know is, where are they from? Where did they come from, where are they going? Obviously, they are going back to China. But the bigger question is, where are they from and why are they passing through Sibutu Strait?)

Philippine military commanders said that apart from failing to seek diplomatic clearances from the country - something that other militaries do, including that of the United States and Japan - Chinese warships turned off their Automatic Identification System, which would have enabled the Philippine military to know who they were. 

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), any foreign vessel may be allowed to cross a coastal state’s territorial waters without notifying the coastal state if they are conducting innocent passage, or movement in a straight path heading back out to sea- essentially just passing through.

Lorenzana said that in the case of the Chinese warships, however, the passages are "not so innocent anymore."

“I think it's not innocent anymore, dahil palagi na 'yan eh. Palagi na 'yang ginagawa eh. 'Saka why don’t they inform us? Ano ba 'yung 'huy, daan kami, makikiraan po.' Ganun lang naman 'yun sa'tin diba? Why the secrecy?” Lorenzana lamented.

(I think it's not innocent (passage) anymore because they have done it often. They've been doing it. And why don’t they inform us? They can say, 'hey, we'll be passing through, please excuse us.' Why the secrecy?)

Lorenzana emphasized that even if the Chinese warships' movements may not be considered innocent passage, there was no hostility between the two countries.

"Nakakainis lang, dahil tubig natin, at warships sila. Buti sana kung civilian. Pinapatay pa identification system, so nakakainis lang," Lorenzana said.

(It's just annoying because it's our waters and their warships. It would have been okay if they were civilians. But they even turn off their identification systems, so it's just annoying.)

Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, reiterated the need for military coordination between the Philippines and China, saying secrecy can lead to the danger of a possible military misencounter between the two countries.

“To be able to prevent 'yung unintended [clashes], halimbawa magkaroon ng unnecessary confrontations. Mas maganda kung napag-uusapan 'yung mga coordinations like these eh, nagpapaalam, para masiguro natin na hindi naman nava-violate ang ating territory,” Madrigal said.

(To be able to prevent unintended clashes, unnecessary confrontations. It will be better if there will be talks about coordination, asking permissions, to ensure our territory will not be violated.)

Madrigal hit the Chinese actions, saying "they [are] not just threats but disrespect towards Philippine territory."

The military, Madrigal said, is taking action to address the Chinese warships problem. Madrigal, however, declined to disclose them.

Last July, Lorenzana first revealed that Chinese warships passed through Sibutu Strait in “4 instances” that began early this year without informing the Philippine government.

The ship passages through Tawi-Tawi happened amid recurrent tensions between Manila and Beijing over the latter's incursions in the disputed South China Sea. 

Chinese ships have also been spotted in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the contested waters.