MANILA (UPDATED) - Citing a "reliable source," Malacañang on Thursday said there is no truth to a lawmaker’s claim that a Chinese flag has been planted on a sand cay in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said a check on the said area revealed that no Chinese flag has been planted near Kota Island, part of the Kalayaan island group off the Palawan coast.
The island is controlled by the Philippines and is also being claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
“I inquired about that. Apparently, as of this stage there’s no flag,” Abella said in a news conference in Malacañang.
Asked if the verification came from the military or the defense department, Abella said he got the information from a reliable source.
Abella noted that civilian vessels also visit the area.
“The place in itself is subject to many passers-through. There are evidence of people who do park there,” he said. “Mainly, these are not military, but these are citizens and not white (Coast Guard) or gray (Navy) ships.”
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, a fierce administration critic, earlier said a Chinese flag was found planted on a sand cay located 7 nautical miles northeast off Kota Island, triggering fresh concerns over Chinese activities in waters claimed by the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.
Alejano said China's continuous activities in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, are very concerning.
He called on China to stay true to its public pronouncements and assurances by matching its actions on the ground.
He also reiterated his call for the government, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs, to be transparent on issues regarding the West Philippine Sea.
The lawmaker made the claim less than a week after he alleged that several Chinese ships were spotted near the Philippine-held Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island).
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pursued enhanced ties with China despite the unresolved sea dispute, has downplayed the reported sightings, saying Beijing has promised him it would not seize the area.
China has ignored the Philippines' landmark 2016 arbitral victory that invalidated its sweeping claims over nearly all of the South China Sea, instead ramping up militarization and island-building activities in the disputed waters. -- with reports from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News