Philippine lawmakers visited tiny islands the Philippines claims in the disputed South China Sea, prompting complaints from China.
The four legislators, accompanied by members of the military and journalists, visited what the Philippines calls the Kalayaan, or “freedom”, islands.
Congressman Walden Bello replaced a tattered national flag at the municipal hall of the most inhabited island. After the half-day tour of the island, which has a population of 60 people, Bello said his group “successfully enforced Philippine sovereignty.”
“When we landed it was clearly on Philippine soil. We felt that, when we were with the structures, with the people over there…. You know, this was a settled community. Yes, it had military personnel but it had also a thriving civilian community, that’s largely made up of fisher folk. So there was no doubt on our part that we were indisputably on Philippine soil, on Philippine territory,” Bello said.
However, China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, including the Kalayaan islands, which are part of the Spratly islands group.
Chinese officials were agitated by the group’s visit. The Chinese ambassador met with a foreign affairs official over the matter and embassy spokesman Ethan Sun says it sent the wrong signal.
“It goes against the declaration of the parties in the South China Sea and serves no purpose but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage Philippines- China relationship,” Sun said.
He says China made clear to the Philippine government that it will monitor this sort of activity closely.
Bello calls China’s response to the trip “immature.”
Wednesday, a presidential spokesman reiterated that lawmakers took the trip on their own initiative. Press Secretary Edwin Lacierda says the administration recognizes China’s concern and hopes it will not hamper relations.
“The only thing we can assure them is that we are continuously dialoguing with them and the mere fact that the Chinese ambassador was able to speak with Under Secretary Conegos is a manifestation of the open lines of communication between the two parties,” Lacierda said.
Apart from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim all or part of South China Sea, which is believed to sit above deposits of natural gas and oil. China insists on bilateral talks, while the other parties want a multilateral approach.
On Wednesday, Southeast Asian and Chinese officials meeting in Indonesia agreed on a set of non-binding guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
That could eventually lead to a binding code of conduct for handling disputes in the region. A Chinese foreign ministry official at the ASEAN meeting called the agreement an important milestone for cooperation. But the Philippines says Wednesday’s agreement has not teeth.
In recent months, the Philippines and Vietnam have complained of Chinese incursions into their waters. The Philippines says in March Chinese sea patrols harassed an oil exploration ship operating within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. The country says at least six other intrusions took place.
Journalists who traveled with the legislators report that island residents say they get along fine with fishermen from other claimant countries and exchange greetings with Chinese fishing crews when they cross paths.