Chinese ship ‘spied on PH-US war games’
MANILA, Philippines — A Chinese navy vessel was spying on Filipino-American war games off Palawan province last month, according to senior military officers, and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) summoned Beijing’s ambassador to Manila over the ship’s “illegal intrusion and lingering presence” in Philippine waters.
The presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy Dongdiao-class electronic reconnaissance ship, PLAN 792, in the Sulu Sea from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 was recorded while Philippine and US Marines were holding Marine Exercise 2022 (MAREX 22) off Palawan, the military officers who were monitoring the exercises told the Inquirer on Tuesday.
MAREX 22, which is intended to boost the mutual defense capabilities of the two longtime allies, started on Jan. 27 and ended on Feb. 2. The US Navy ships that participated were the helicopter carrier USS Essex (LHD-2), amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD-27) and dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52).
Pictures released by the US military showed a demonstration of Marines from the two countries storming the shores of the municipality of Brooke’s Point, which faces the Sulu Sea.
The amphibious assault was in accordance with a scenario where the Marines were to land on a potentially hostile shore. The exercises also included troop landings in response to natural disasters.
MAREX 22 is one of the hundreds of exercises involving Filipino troops and their counterparts from the country’s only treaty ally.
The spy ship was seen off Palawan’s Cuyo Group of Islands and Apo Island off Mindoro.
A picture of PLAN 792 sailing northward on the Sulu Sea taken by the Philippine Air Force showed the 130-meter long, 6,000-ton reconnaissance ship with its distinctive main mast and dome-shaped observatory device. The Dongdiao-class vessel has a top speed of about 37 kilometers per hour (20 knots).
The Inquirer’s military sources said that the ship entered Philippine territory by sailing through Balabac Strait on the southernmost tip of Palawan from the South China Sea at the border between the Philippines and Malaysia. It then lingered off eastern Palawan for most of the duration of the military exercise.
The DFA said the Chinese ship entered Philippine waters despite repeated demands of the Philippine Navy’s BRP Antonio Luna (FF-151) to leave immediately.
The ship responded that it was “exercising innocent passage.”
But the DFA rejected the Chinese vessel’s explanation for its presence.
“The actions of PLAN 792 did not constitute innocent passage and violated Philippine sovereignty,” the DFA said on Monday, as it announced that Acting Foreign Undersecretary Ma. Theresa Lazaro had summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over last month’s incident.
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The DFA did not say why it took more than a month to act on and publicize the Sulu Sea incident. It also did not say how Huang responded.
The Chinese ambassador was also summoned by the DFA in April last year to protest against the continued presence of hundreds of Chinese militia vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
Chinese navy ships rarely shadow US vessels training with their Philippine counterparts, according to one of the senior officers who spoke with the Inquirer on the condition of anonymity for lack of authority to speak with the press. They often follow US ships in their freedom of navigation operations, he said.
But China has been watching America’s major war games with partners and allies. Beijing deployed two surveillance ships to Australia in July last year as a large-scale US-Australia military exercise took place.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Feb. 9, more than a week after the end of the joint exercise, the Chinese government formally handed over the first batch of military disaster response equipment worth P1 billion to the Department of National Defense. Subsequent shipments have yet to be set.