China could take over Philippine-occupied Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, a top adviser to President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday, noting the swarm of Chinese militia ships in the area.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Chinese ships around Ayungin Shoal have increased to 19 from two in just one week. An attack initiated by China in the area, should it happen, would trigger the Philippines' mutual defense treaty with the United States.
"Talagang gusto nilang (China) i-swarm at may posibilidad nga na i-occupy nila 'yan eh, pero palagay ko pag inoccupy nila yan e talagang mag kick-off na 'yung mutual defense treaty," Esperon, also the chairman of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, said in an interview on radio dzBB.
"That's ours, we have the sovereignty, jurisdiction [over Ayungin Shoal]. They (Chinese forces) should not be there," he said.
Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, is part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratly Islands) parts of which are occupied by the Philippines. A Navy ship, BRP Sierra Madre, was intentionally grounded in Ayungin Shoal in May 1999 to serve as an outpost for Philippine troops.
While there are conflicting claims with other countries such as China and Malaysia over the Kalayaan Group of Islands, the Philippines insists that it has jurisdiction over the rich fishing grounds since it is part of its continental shelf.
Esperon's warning came after the Chinese coast guard used water cannons on Philippine supply boats that were supposed to transport food to Filipino soldiers in Ayungin Shoal.
Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. condemned the incident, saying it "threatens" the "special relationship" between Manila and Beijing that was renewed under President Rodrigo Duterte's term.
"The acts of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels are illegal. China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off," Locsin said in a statement.