Military to probe boat chase in WPS

The Department of National Defense (DND) on Friday said it would order the Armed Forces of the Philippines to investigate the incident Thursday in the West Philippine Sea where the boat chartered by an ABS-CBN news crew was chased by at least two Chinese attack craft armed with missiles.

RIGHT NOT MIGHT An aerial image of the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef shows Chinese vessels in the area. Both Manila and Beijing are claiming ownership of the reef that is situated inside the country’s exclusive economic zone of the West Philippine Sea, which is located at the eastern part of the South China Sea. Conflict erupted anew on April 8, 2021 when Chinese missile boats chased an ABS-CBN television crew away from the disputed territory. The Department of National Defense ordered an investigation into the incident. The US assured the Philippines of the ‘applicability’ of the Mutual Defense Treaty in the ongoing conflict. PHOTO BY PLANET LABS IMAGERY

DND spokesman Director Arsenio Andolong said the Armed Forces’ Western Command would conduct the investigation, the findings of which would be used to determine how the government would respond to the incident.

ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano said she and her news crew visited reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea close to the mainland of Palawan to document Filipino fishermen who have lost access to their fishing grounds after they were driven out by Chinese vessels.

Zambrano said a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel approached their boat when they were about to reach Ayungin Shoal. Someone speaking in English radioed the ABS-CBN boat, asking the occupants to identify themselves.

Zambrano said the crew of the boat, who were fisherfolk, was unable to respond because no one speaks English.

To avoid conflict, the Filipino captain steered away from Ayungin Shoal thinking the Chinese Coast Guard vessel would leave and no longer confront them.

“Pero ang nangyari, Kabayan, kahit kami ay nasa ruta ng papauwi ng mainland [Palawan] ay mga isang oras kaming hinabol nitong puting barko ng China Coast Guard (But what happened, Kabayan, even though we were heading back to Palawan, we were chased for about an hour by this white China Coast Guard ship),” Zambrano said in her live report in ABS-CBN’s news program on Thursday.

Zambrano said the Chinese ship was close enough that she could read the numbers 5101 on its bow.

That was when two smaller missile attack craft appeared in the horizon and started to chase their boat, she said.

She described the vessels as Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft, each carrying two missiles.
Zambrano said the global positioning system (GPS) her crew was carrying showed that their boat was only 90 nautical miles from Palawan.

The Chinese boats gave chase for 20 to 30 minutes before veering away and returning to the direction of Mischief Reef.

Mischief Reef, Ayungin Shoal and the path of the ABS-CBN vessel are all well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). International law recognizes the right of Filipinos to sail, fly and benefit from the marine resources in EEZ.

As tension rose in the West Philippine Sea following the escalation of Chinese incursions, the Philippines and the United States reaffirmed the importance of working closely to enhance the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as the Philippines marked Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) on Friday.

“Substantive conversation today with my Philippine counterpart, @teddyboylocsin, discussing our concerns with People’s Republic of China militia vessels in the South China Sea and our efforts to combat anti-Asian hate and violence,” Blinken said on Twitter.

The US Department of State said Blinken and Locsin discussed their concerns during a telephone conversation.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken “reaffirmed the applicability of the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty to the South China Sea.”

Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo on Friday described as “nakakagalit” and heartbreaking the chasing of a Filipino boat by armed Chinese ships.

Robredo said she did not know what to feel as she was watching the ABS-CBN video. She said the incident happened “just a few miles out of Palawan, it was within our exclusive economic zone, and yet tayong mga Pilipino iyong tinataboy (it was us Filipinos who were being chased away)”, Robredo told ANC’s “Headstart.”

She said that “when you watch the video, nakakagalit, nakakadurog ng puso, na nangyayari iyon within our territory.”

Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon condemned “in the strongest terms the actions of Chinese forces in the West Philippine Sea in the area of Ayungin Shoal where, disregarding international law, a Filipino civilian vessel with a TV news team on board were harassed and denied passage to their destination.”

Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros expressed outrage over the incident.

“I am outraged. Unti-unti nang nawawala ang katiting na respeto na natitira sa akin para sa gobyerno ng Tsina (I am starting to lose my remaining little respect for the government of China). This latest provocation only proves that China knows she can never win diplomatically or legally in our territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, hence, she is desperately resorting to the threat of using deadly force,” said Hontiveros in a statement.

“Pinalibutan na tayo sa sarili nating teritoryo. Tayo pa ang takot sa sarili nating kapuluan (We are being circled in our own territory. And we are scared in our own island). China should pull her Navy and Coast Guard outside the Philippines’ EEZ to prevent any incident that might lead to further escalation in a disputed area that is already a powder keg in the region,” she said.

On Friday, the Western Command said Zambrano and the ABS-CBN news crew were safe back in Palawan.

Navy Major Cherryl Tindog, Western Command Public Affairs Office chief, said the command would establish the circumstances and document of the incident in order to determine the next course of action.