MANILA, Philippines — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Saturday said he won’t allow himself to be fooled by the Chinese government and again demanded the immediate withdrawal of dozens of Chinese vessels from the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, where China’s ambassador said they had sought shelter from bad weather.
The Philippine government protested the presence of more than 200 vessels, which it said were part of China’s maritime militia at the reef two weeks earlier and demanded that they be pulled out.
On Saturday, Lorenzana said there were still 44 of them at the reef.
“I am no fool,” he said in a statement, which he also posted on Twitter. “The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there.” “These vessels should be on their way out. Umalis na kayo diyan (Get out of there),” he said.
‘Abide by international law’
He said China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, had “a lot of explaining to do” and reiterated Manila’s demand on Beijing to pull the ships out of “our sovereign territories and abide by international law.”
The Chinese Embassy in a tweet last week said the vessels were fishing boats, not Chinese maritime militia ships, seeking shelter at the reef. In a meeting with President Duterte, Huang gave the same explanation.
Julian Felipe Reef, 324 kilometers from the southern tip of Palawan province, is well within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In a separate statement also on Saturday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, expressed “serious concern” over Chinese “incursions” into the country’s EEZ and said it was committed to constantly monitor the West Philippine Sea through air and maritime “sovereignty patrols.”
Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, the AFP spokesperson, said the military would be “unrelenting” in providing information regarding any situation “that impinges on our sovereignty and our enjoyment of our sovereign rights.”
An aerial patrol on March 30 spotted illegal structures built on Pagkakaisa Banks, a group of maritime features which are part of the Kalayaan Island Group, about 230 km west of Palawan. China and Vietnam also have claims on the different features at Pagkakaisa.
The AFP said it did not observe new constructions at Pagkakaisa, except for the five that were earlier recorded.
China has occupied Mabini (Johnson South) Reef and Chigua (Hughes) Reef, which is also known as Kennan or McKennan Reef. Vietnam had built structures on Rurok (Sin Cowe) Island, Roxas (Collins) Reef and Lansdowne Reef since the early 1970s.
Lorenzana’s statement on Twitter received support but mostly scorn, with some comments calling him out to “walk the talk.”
Others tagged the Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy to get the message across.
One sarcastic comment said his statement was rather late for an April Fool’s joke, noting that the Duterte administration had shelved the country’s victory in the international arbitral tribunal which ruled in 2016 to invalidate China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea.
Another comment pointed to the ironic situation where Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was being “chummy” during his meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China just a day before the defense secretary railed against Chinese presence at the reef.
Willing to work with Asean
In a statement on Saturday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila expressed China’s “willingness” to work with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) “to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to accelerate consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, so as to maintain stability in the region.”
Critics of China, however, say that it had violated a provision in the declaration not to militarize or escalate tension in the South China Sea when it built artificial islands in the Philippines’ EEZ, which it then turned into military outposts.
More than 100 at other reefs
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) reported that 220 maritime militia vessels were first seen at Julian Felipe by the Philippine Coast Guard on March 7. The number went down to 183 on March 22, then rose to 199 on March 27.
There were 44 left as of March 29 but the the task force said more than 100 such vessels were monitored at other reefs—115 at Chigua, 50 others dispersed around Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery) Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef, and 45 off Pag-asa (Thitu) Island occupied by Filipinos—all part of the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group.
There were also three Type 022 (Houbei class) stealth missile fast attack craft of the Chinese navy anchored at Panganiban Reef, according to a report by Inquirer.net.
These new generation assault vessels carry missile launchers and are capable of speeds of up to 70 km per hour.
A Dayun-class supply ship also was docked inside the reef, on which China had built its biggest artificial island, 232 km from Palawan.
The international tribunal ruled that Panganiban Reef and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, 195 km southwest of Palawan, are within the country’s EEZ and part of the Philippine continental shelf.
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