Satellite imagery of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reported Chinese paramilitary vessels anchored two to 5.5 nautical miles west of Pag-asa Island, Kalayaan municipality.

Mayor Roberto del Mundo of Kalayaan town said Friday that the daily presence of over 50 Chinese boats in the waters between Pag-asa Island and Subi Reef in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) has scared them and other Filipino fishermen away from the area.

Del Mundo said since 2018, their daily sightings never go down to less than 50 and they cannot identify if the boats are merely fishing or filled with Chinese undercover agents spying on Filipino constructions going on in Pag-asa.

But what is certain, he said, is they can no longer fish in the area.

“The rest ng bahura, ‘yong malapit doon sa pagitan ng Subi Reef at Pag-asa Island, hindi na kami makapangisda doon. Dati doon ang pangisdaan ng aming mga mangingisda kaya lang ngayon nahihirapan na silang pumasok doon,” Del Mundo told Palawan News.

Mayor Del Mundo added that because the Kalayaan fishermen are scared to go to the area for fear of being harassed or agitating the Chinese to foment another diplomatic issue, they have since transferred their fishing activities to the southern part of Pag-asa Island where the catch is abundant, anyway.

“Dito na lang kami sa kabilang bahura namin dito sa south. Wala naman masyadong difference kasi marami rin talagang isda sa paligid ng Pag-asa maliban sa ginaguwardyahan nilang (Chinese) bahura,” he stated.

He pointed out that although he thinks the presence of the Chinese boats is not a threat, he believes China is monitoring the projects that are currently being constructed in their municipality.

Del Mundo did not elaborate on what these projects are, but according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on February 6 in a feature titled “Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes Paramilitary Response”, the country has started the construction of a new beaching ramp on Pag-asa Island.

“Hindi naman siguro threat, hindi natin alam. Baka minamanmanan lang tayo, mino-monitor ang Pag-asa island kasi may mga project tayo doon na malalaking pondo baka ‘yon ang kanilang kinukunan pero ang mga kilos naman nila na ginagawa nila doon sa bahura [banda],” he said.

AMTI said the ramp which was supposed to have been completed in 2018, will be used to easily deploy construction materials and equipment to Pag-asa for planned upgrades of the deteriorating runway.

It added that due to the ramp construction project, China responded by sending in “a large fleet of ships from Subi Reef,” which is merely 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-asa Island.

AMTI said these include “several People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and China Coast Guard (CCG) ships, along with dozens of fishing vessels ranging in size from 30 to 70 meters.”

The interactive maritime security initiative said further that the Chinese vessels may have started operating in the area in July 2018, “likely in response to the initial Philippine effort to start runway repairs last May.”

It said the number of Chinese vessels increased on December 3, 2018, before construction started.

“In five subsequent satellite images captured from mid-December to late January, their numbers fluctuate, reaching a high of 95 on December 20 before dropping to 42 by January 26,” the AMTI wrote.

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