Leading officers of the armed forces and the police, speaking through the alumni associations of the country’s premier military school, on Thursday urged China to pull out its maritime militia vessels from the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and follow international law.
In a joint statement, the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Alumni Association and the PMA Retirees Association supported Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a fellow academy graduate, in protesting against the presence of over 200 Chinese vessels that have been swarming Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef since last month.
The two groups said the Chinese action showed “bad faith” amid talks on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, referring to efforts by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to craft a binding agreement with China to ease tension in the disputed waterway.
Their statement said the “illegal encroachment” by the Chinese into the country’s EEZ and their “persistent unlawful acts” had not only harmed the marine ecosystem but also showed “the hypocrisy by which the latter have conducted themselves.”
“It demonstrates nothing more but bad faith in the ongoing negotiations for the proper conduct in these waters,” said the statement signed by Amado Espino Jr., chair of the alumni association, and Vidal Querol, the head of the retirees’ group.
Core of officer corps
PMA graduates make up the core of the officer corps of the 150,000 strong Armed Forces of the Philippines and the 210,000-strong Philippine National Police. Of 9,000 PMA alumni, 6,000 are in active service.
“The members of these organizations are patriots, veterans, strategists, peers in the security sector, and most importantly, fellow Filipinos,” said Department of National Defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong.
“Their sentiments on this issue reflect those of a majority of our citizens,” he said.
The PMA alumni also demanded respect for Philippine government officials, particularly Lorenzana, from the Chinese Embassy in Manila, which described the defense chief’s statements against the presence of the Chinese vessels as “perplexing,” “wanton” and “unprofessional.”
The embassy and China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, had explained that the vessels did not belong to their maritime militia but were just fishing boats that sought shelter at Julian Felipe due to bad weather.
They called the reef by its Chinese name, Niu’e Jiao, and said it was a longtime Chinese fishing ground and part of China’s Nansha islands—the disputed Spratlys archipelago wholly claimed by Beijing.
‘Every right to defend it’
“The acts of the Chinese Embassy in downplaying the issue and subverting the truth are very alarming indeed,” the PMA alumni said. “The weather conditions in the West Philippine Sea has been fair in the past few days and to claim that the vessels still cannot leave due to rough seas and inclement weather is a blatant lie, hence deplorable.”
Lorenzana had accused China of maneuvering to occupy more maritime features in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s 370-kilometer EEZ, by deploying more than 200 of its militia ships to Julian Felipe.
“We have every right to defend it from foreign intrusion,” the alumni statement said.
Following a diplomatic protest lodged by Manila with Beijing, the number of Chinese vessels dwindled last week to just 44.
But Lorenzana insisted that all the ships leave the reef, which he said was well within the country’s EEZ under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) as well as the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, which invalidated China’s sweeping claims to nearly the entire South China Sea.
“The agreements stated in the Unclos must be held sacrosanct if any meaningful dialogue among other countries is to take place,” the PMA alumni statement said.
The alumni statement noted that Julian Felipe is close to Panganiban (Mischief) Reef where China built an artificial island which it turned into a military base.
It said the huge number of Chinese vessels and the reef’s proximity to Panganiban would “make any reasonable citizen suspicious of the whole situation.”
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that China had “no plan” of establishing a “permanent presence” at Julian Felipe, adding that the Philippines should immediately stop its “wanton hype-up” of the issue.
In response, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., said if that were the case the Chinese vessels should leave the reef.
“Then tell them to move out. All of them,” he said on Twitter on Wednesday.
“If they’re really fishing the fish are all gone; they’re just fouling the water with waste. Nobody fishes by lashing ships together,” he said.
The progressive fishers’ group, Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya), said efforts by officials to drive away the Chinese vessels from Julian Felipe “would be totally wasted if President Duterte himself remains mum and subservient to Beijing.”
“Key government officials have already reproached the continuing Chinese presence in the Philippine waters, yet the Commander in Chief has yet to manifest an unequivocal stand against a crystal-clear maritime aggression,” the group said in a statement.
Pamalakaya said the government should seek help from the UN General Assembly to pressure China to adhere to the 2016 ruling that invalidates their sweeping claims over the West Philippine Sea. —WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS AND JHESSET O. ENANO
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