MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government has quietly protested after Chinese ships deployed a helicopter that flew “dangerously close” to a Philippine navy boat carrying supplies to Filipino marines based in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, two officials said Wednesday.
The Philippine navy personnel on board the rubber boat were unharmed in the May 11 incident and proceeded to deliver the supplies to marines on a grounded Philippine navy ship at Second Thomas Shoal, which has been guarded by Chinese forces, the two officials said.
The Chinese helicopter hovered “dangerously close” to the Philippine rubber boat, “around 40-50 feet above, seemingly trying to harass and overturn it,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the incident publicly.
The Philippines and China recently held talks to prevent a repeat of the incident, which earned the “displeasure” of President Rodrigo Duterte, the official said.
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Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Philippine marine officer, mentioned the incident during a hearing Wednesday at the House of Representatives that focused on the South China Sea territorial issue and was attended by top defense and diplomatic officials. Alejano asked the government to condemn the Chinese harassment.
The Chinese navy helicopter “was so close that seawater splash entered the rubber boat,” said Alejano, who asked the government to disclose more details of such incidents to the public.
“If the Duterte administration wants the public to trust its approach in the West Philippine Sea, certain details meant for public consumption should be released,” Alejano said in a statement, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
“They cannot blame the public if there are doubts and low confidence on their words since what they are disclosing and what is happening on the ground are two different stories,” Alejano said.
After taking power nearly two years ago, Duterte declared he would chart a foreign policy not highly oriented toward the United States, the country’s treaty ally. He took steps to revive frosty ties with Beijing while seeking to boost Chinese trade, investment and infrastructure funds.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano led top officials in explaining to House lawmakers what Duterte’s administration has been doing to defend the country’s sovereignty in the disputed region amid criticism that it has been far too soft on China. The Philippines has lodged “dozens and dozens” of protests over Chinese actions in the disputed waters, he said.
“President Duterte’s approach is prudent, patient and pragmatic. This approach has produced major results,” Cayetano told the legislators. “This prudent approach produced the environment of peace and stability that has given us significant gains in protecting our national territory and enjoying our sovereign rights.”
National security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the Philippine government has been monitoring China’s reported deployment of missiles and landing of Chinese military aircraft on Woody Islands in the Paracels. “We note with serious concern the growing militarization in the area, such as the deployment of military assets especially on features near the Philippine territory,” he said.
He said lighthouses were being constructed on Philippine-occupied islets and the government has been improving port facilities and a partly eroded airstrip on Thitu island. Filipino forces have been based for years on the island, which the Philippines calls Pag-asa, along with a small fishing community.
Critics and left-wing groups have slammed Duterte for not publicly raising alarm over recent Chinese actions, including the reported installation of missile defense systems on its newly constructed islands, and for not demanding immediate Chinese compliance with a 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to exploit resources in vast stretches of waters off its western coast.