MANILA – A Philippine official said Wednesday that he recently spotted five suspected Chinese coast guard and navy ships at a disputed atoll in the South China Sea and fears Beijing will take control of another area frequented by Filipino, Vietnamese and Malaysian fishermen.
Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., who heads a Philippine-claimed region in the disputed Spratly Islands, said he saw the Chinese ships at the Jackson Atoll for two straight days last week while flying in a plane over the area.
Bito-onon said Chinese government vessels have not been stationed at the atoll, which the Philippines calls Quirino, in the years he has been passing by the uninhabited ring-shaped reef.
Jackson Atoll lies several kilometers from the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, which China occupied in 1995 and has turned into an island containing what appears to be a runway. It lies midway between the western Philippine province of Palawan and Filipino-occupied Thitu Island in the Spratlys.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said it was trying to verify the reported Chinese presence and a local newspaper report that the Chinese ships recently prevented Filipino fishermen from approaching the area. Chinese Embassy officials were not immediately available for comment.
“I’m alarmed because we frequently pass by that atoll on our way to Pag-asa,” Bito-onon said by phone, referring to the Philippine name for Thitu Island, where he frequently travels to visit a Filipino fishing community guarded by troops. “What will happen now if we sail close with all those Chinese ships?”
Filipino, Vietnamese and Malaysian fishing boats have gone to the vast fishing lagoon Jackson for years, Bito-onon said, adding that Filipino fishermen were looking forward to the start of the octopus-catching season that starts next month.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have conflicting territorial claims in the Spratlys.