MANILA, Philippines — The chief of the Philippine military on Monday confirmed that there were still Chinese ships at Julian Felipe Reef near Palawan province, two weeks since more than 200 vessels were seen there by a Philippine Coast Guard team patrolling the West Philippine Sea.
“The ships are still there. We are still counting them,” Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters on Monday.
But the AFP’s Western Command (Wescom) still had to determine the numbers, on the heels of the reported presence of 220 Chinese ships in that coral area named by the Philippines after the composer of its national anthem.
A task force on the West Philippine Sea said the ships are “believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel.”
But the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines said in a statement on Monday “there is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged” in the reef that Beijing calls Niu’e Jiao.
The boomerang-shaped feature at the West Philippine Sea is located 324 kilometers west of Bataraza, Palawan, and is part of the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.
The Chinese Embassy, however, said “Niu’e Jiao is a part of China’s Nansha Qundao.”
It added, “Recently, some Chinese fishing vessels take shelter near Niu’e Jiao due to rough sea conditions. It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances.”
“Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in its adjacent waters for many years,” it said. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”
A March 7 sighting by the Philippine Coast Guard reported 220 Chinese ships, said to be of the Chinese Militia, moored in a line formation at the reef.
Sobejana said military air and sea assets were still working to give an accurate number of the Chinese ships in the area.
Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson, said Wescom chief Vice Adm. Ramil Enriquez sent on Monday morning a fixed wing aircraft to conduct a sovereignty patrol flight over the reef.
The flight was completed in over three hours. A report will then be submitted to Sobejana and the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) through the Department of National Defense.
Arevalo said “the AFP maintains that it will oppose any acts of incursions or encroachment in our sovereign territory. Our mandate includes ensuring that our fisherfolk and our countrymen can freely take advantage of our maritime resources and conduct their livelihood in our EEZ.”
“Nonetheless, we will pursue the rules-based approach of resolving the issue at hand, consciously taking into account the call of the secretary of national defense for the Chinese to stop the incursion and immediately recall those sighted ships encroaching in our territory,” he added.
‘Militarizing the area’
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a statement on Sunday, said the presence of the Chinese ships posed a grave concern, describing it as a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”
He called on the Chinese to stop the incursion and recall the vessels as the move violated Philippine maritime rights and encroached into the country’s sovereign territory.
On its Facebook page, the Presidential Communications Operations Office on Saturday posted a statement from the NTF-WPS on the “presence of China’s maritime militias at the West Philippine sea.”
According to the statement, “NTF-WPS received a confirmed report from the Philippine Coast Guard that around 220 Chinese Fishing Vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7, 2021.”
It further said, “Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during nighttime. The NTF-WPS notes this circumstance as a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation.”
Senators on Monday branded the presence of the ships as acts of “severe provocation” by Beijing against Manila.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the government should study “more tangible ways to make China pay” for its occupation of the Philippines’ EEZ.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said in his statement, “[I]sn’t this a deliberate sign that China is using its donated vaccines as a ‘geopolitical weapon’?”
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the country filed on Sunday night a diplomatic protest against China over the March 7 incident.
“Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light,” Locsin said on Twitter.
In his statement, former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario recommended that “given the gravity of this development, we should consider summoning the Chinese ambassador in the Philippines to ask why we should not consider this Chinese action at Julian Felipe Reef to be an act of unilateral aggression against the territorial integrity of our country.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the Philippines and China “have a close friendship. All things can be discussed between friends and neighbors.”
—WITH REPORTS FROM DJ YAP AND LEILA B. SALAVERRIA
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