Chinese swarm gone

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The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Tuesday disclosed that over a hundred Chinese ships have left the waters off Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest over their presence.

In a statement, AFP Western Command (WesCom) head VADM Rene Medina said some 140 Chinese ships surrounded the Philippine-occupied island in July, with the number going down to 115 after the onslaught of tropical depression Falcon.

“We don’t know the reason, but for the past four days, we have not monitored any Chinese fishing vessel in that area,” Medina said. “We are also working with Joint Task Force West Task Force West to conduct patrol so that we can also verify in any areas of West Philippine Sea where they are.”

Last week, the WesCom recommended the filing of diplomatic protests in connection with the Chinese swarm and the passage of Chinese warships through Sibutu Strait in the Philippines’ southern tip without prior clearance.

It added that it also has jurisdiction over Palawan province — where two Chinese nationals were allegedly caught taking photos inside the Parola naval facility — while a new military ship was berthed there in 23 July.

Naval Forces West commander Cdre. Sean Anthony Villa, on the other hand, clarified that the Chinese nationals were tourists and had no ill intentions.

Villa also stressed that the Navy also has coordinated with the local tourism office because the map it gave to tourists included the military base.

Also last week, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that Manila continues to strengthen its position in the WPS, noting that five lighthouses have already been put up with five more in the way.

The Philippines will also have its own high-flying unmanned aerial vehicle with a direct access to satellite imagery to help in this effort, Esperon added.

Malacañang, on the other hand, said Tuesday that the time is now for President Rodrigo Duterte to invoke the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling in favor of the Philippines’ maritime claims in the wps.

Senators are also supportive of the Palace stance.

Malacañang said the decision handed down by the international tribunal in 2016 will be raised by the President in his “one-on-one dialogue” with Chinese President Xi Jinping when he makes his second trip to China later this month.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that Manila continues to strengthen its position in the West Philippine Sea, noting that five lighthouses have already been put up with five more in the way.

“There will be a time that I will invoke the arbitral ruling. This is the time,” the President was quoted by presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo as saying, citing that Mr. Duterte briefly talked about the planned trip to China — his second visit to the neighboring country for the year and fifth overall since assuming office more than three years ago — during Monday night’s Cabinet meeting.

The Palace official said that Mr. Duterte wants to thresh out “the China and Philippines issues” now that he is already in the second half of his term.

“His term is nearing its end, right? And he said, `before the end of my term.’ He is also interested in that 60-40 joint exploration of minerals, oil. They will talk about it,” said Panelo, referring to the memorandum of understanding which both leaders signed last November in Manila.

One provision of the pact states that both sides have one year to craft a framework to pursue joint oil and gas developments in the WPS.

We want everyone to understand, it’s lethal.

Foreign Affairs chief Teodoro Locsin Jr. previously confirmed receipt of China’s version of the terms of reference for the endeavor which he tagged as “more superior” than the country’s “verbose version.”

As to how the President would exactly raise the issues with Xi, including the Recto Bank incident where a Filipino fishing boat sank after being hit by a Chinese vessel, Panelo said to “just wait and see.”

In other developments, one of the largest American aircraft carriers entered Philippine waters also on Tuesday following the accusations made by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper that China is destabilizing the Indo-Pacific.

He on Sunday accused China of predatory economics, intellectual property theft and “weaponizing the global commons” — charges which threatened to inflame already heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing as they wage an escalating trade war.

Esper revealed that the USS Reagan — the only aircraft carrier that is forward-deployed to the Indo-Pacific — will be open for a tour by the Philippine press. It is described as longer than Paris’ Eiffel Tower and can fit roughly 100 fighter jets and aircraft used for electronic warfare and anti-submarine operations.

The Reagan is one of 10 US Nimitz class aircraft carriers that used to be the biggest warships until the arrival of the USS Gerald Ford in 2017, which has yet to be deployed.

“We want everyone to understand, it’s lethal,” Rear Admiral Patrick Piercey said of the Reagan in 2015, when it still belonged under the Carrier Strike Group 9 that he commanded then.

“Ultimately, this is an aircraft carrier. It is at the high end. It represents the combat power of the United States. We want anyone who will potentially challenge us to see we’re lethal, we’re ready, we’re credible.”

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