Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday said Chinese warships passed through Sibutu Strait in “4 instances” that began early this year without informing the Philippine government.
The strait is a key waterway at the southern tip of Tawi-Tawi.
“There were 4 instances when there were Chinese ships that passed through. Different times, starting February up to this time,” Lorenzana said.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ships can pass through a coastal state’s territorial sea by virtue of what is called “innocent passage.”
In Part 2, Section 3, Article 19 of the UNCLOS, such a passage is defined as the movement of ships along the said waters “that is not prejudicial to the peace, good order, or security of the coastal state.”
The UNCLOS says innocent passage must “be continuous and expeditious” unless an ordinary navigational stop needs to be done.
No part of the UNCLOS mentions that vessels in innocent passage are required to inform the coastal state, but the Philippines has historically required all foreign warships to inform the government of their presence in its territory.
Lorenzana said that while foreign warships are allowed to move through territorial seas, such an activity must be communicated to the government.
“For as long as they are not doing anything wrong or illegal, then they can pass through because it is allowed for them to pass,” Lorenzana said.
“What I’m saying is these warships should inform us only... inform us of their passing.”
Lorenzana said he spoke to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua about the warships that passed through Sibutu on Monday.
“They should inform us ’pag dumadaan sila,” Lorenzana said.
“(Ambassador Zhao) knows there were several ships after it happened. So he said that in the future, he will require those ships to inform the Chinese Embassy here in Manila about intended passage in Sibutu, and they will inform us.”
In his speech during the turnover of new assets to the Philippine Coast Guard, Lorenzana said the Sibutu Strait is an area that the Coast Guard needs to keep an eye on.
“This is internal sea that belongs to the Philippines,” he said.
“This is a shipping lane. Ang sabi nga ng mga military doon, at least 150 ships a day ang dumadaan d’yan. Kasama ’yan sa babantayan n’yo.”
Meanwhile, Lorenzana denied allegations made by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning was one of the ships that passed through Sibutu.
Lorenzana said Zhao and the troops stationed in the area told him no such vessel traversed the strait. — With a report from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News