(ABS-CBN) KALAYAAN, Palawan — Nine Chinese vessels were spotted 2-3 nautical miles away from the shorelines of Pag-asa Island during Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Andres Centino’s visit on Thursday.
Lt. Erwen Ferbo, Head of Joint Task Unit Pag-Asa, said the presence of other Chinese and Vietnamese vessels was also observed in separate recent instances in the area.
“Ang Vietnamese, Sir, nakaka-dalawa [ng lapit dito]. Pero ang Chinese, 3-4 at one week,” Ferbo said.
(The Vietnamese have come near twice. But the Chinese come 3-4 times in one week.)
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has adopted a stance to immediately confront any incident of incursion within the country’s territorial waters.
“We challenge them under our territory. Also in other territories, 12 nautical miles from our waters,” Commodore Allan Javier, Commanding General of the Naval Forces West, told reporters.
“May mga times na hindi sumasagot. Kapag tatlong beses naming nire-radio challenge at hindi sumagot, nire-record namin para maisama sa report at maging basehan ng panibagong ipa-file na diplomatic protest,” he added.
(There are times when they don’t reply. When we have radio challenged them for three times already and they don’t reply, we record it so it can become part of the diplomatic protest.)
Estrada and Centino joined other AFP officers, Kalayaan Mayor Bito-on and their municipal officials in touring Pag-Asa Island.
Centino assured the public of the AFP’s non-stop commitment to guard the country’s territorial waters, proven by the growing number of projects by Philippine Air Force, including the construction of a three-kilometer runway in Balabac, Palawan.
Estrada, chairman of the Senate defense committee, committed to help the AFP and Pag-Asa Island residents.
“We will improve (the island and will continue) to build schools and others affected by typhoon Odette,” Estrada said.
The senator also aims to get more support for the military in Pag-Asa Island by delivering a privilege speech in the upper chamber next week.
The two officials capped off their visit with boodle fight. Centino brought in two roast pigs for the soldiers in Pag-Asa Island. Estrada, meantime, gave the soldiers five basketballs and a portable public address (PA) system.
CIVILIANS IN PAG-ASA ISLAND
Despite the threat posed by the Chinese vessels and the destruction to schools in the island caused by Typhoon Odette in 2021, 73 children in the area actively continue their schooling.
Locals said they don’t need money that much because rice and water are both free in the island. Government also provides them with food and medicines, and their electricity bills don’t have to be settled immediately.
Many Pag-Asa residents either come from other provinces in Mindanao, Quezon and Central Luzon. They moved to the island because it offers tranquility.
Elementary school teacher Anna Marie Dolatre, 26, said she enjoys teaching the children of Pag-Asa Island despite many limitations.
Dolatre said the presence of soldiers gives them a sense of security.
Village Councilor Julie Mendoza, who just came to Pag-Asa Island as a visitor nine years ago, said she opted to stay for good because of the “purity” of the area.
Their only wish, she said, is to have their school building repaired so children can study well again.
They also would like to have a doctor to regularly come to their area so their healthcare needs can be met. They also want agricultural assistance from the government.
For Mendoza, the mere thought of Chinese vessels getting near their island is already stressful.
But for Rolland Palay and Juvinel Briones, who are both working as construction workers in Pag-Asa Island, this is the best location to show how a true Filipino loves his country.
“Siyempre po napamahal na sa ating bayan. Saka atin po talaga ito. magkaka-giyera nga ngayon sasama ako e. Atin ito eh,” Palay said.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims to parts of the sea.
— With a report from Agence France-Presse