President Rodrigo Duterte has told the Chinese ambassador that the Philippines was concerned about the large number of Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef and reasserted the international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea.
Ambassador Huang Xilian explained that the vessels belonged to fishermen who were just “seeking refuge from bad weather” at the reef, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Thursday.
Roque did not say when Mr. Duterte met Huang, but he announced on Tuesday that the President would talk to the Chinese ambassador about the presence of the Chinese vessels at the reef, which is well within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Roque said the face-to-face meeting was a “personal visit between two very close friends” was scheduled even before the Chinese vessels were spotted at the reef because Huang wanted to greet the President on his forthcoming birthday.
Mr. Duterte will turn 76 on March 28.
‘We stand by our victory’
“On the side, the President mentioned what he said before the UN, that we stand firm and would protect our territory, that we believe this has to be resolved under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that we stand by our victory in the arbitral tribunal,” Roque said at a press briefing.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly last September, Mr. Duterte invoked Manila’s 2016 arbitral tribunal victory, saying it was part of international law and that the country rejected any attempt to undermine it.
“The President said we were concerned, that any country would be concerned with that many ships,” Roque said.
Maritime experts and even the Philippine military believe the vessels carried members of the Chinese maritime militia, which serves as an auxiliary and reserve force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Roque said there was “no controversy” since the Chinese vessels were not insisting on staying at the reef. “In the spirit of friendship, we expect the ships not to remain there,” he said.
Some areas in the West Philippine Sea really had stormy conditions, Roque said.
What bad weather?
But on Monday this week, when the weather was clear, the military said there were still 183 ships at the reef, where about 220 were first spotted by the Philippine Coast Guard on March 7.
On Thursday, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, ordered the deployment of additional Navy vessels to patrol the West Philippine Sea.
This was meant to “reassure our people of the AFP’s strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground which is the source of their livelihood,” according to AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
During a meeting between representatives from the AFP and the PLA on Wednesday, the Philippine military conveyed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s demand that the vessels leave the reef.
“China’s People’s Liberation Army representatives reiterated their government’s assurance that those ships were not manned by militia and that those were constrained to seek shelter in the area when inclement weather hampered their fishing activity,” Arevalo said.
The Philippines over the weekend filed a diplomatic protest over the presence of some 220 vessels in Julian Felipe Reef and demanded their withdrawal.
Lorenzana called the Chinese militia presence within the Philippines’ EEZ a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”
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