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220 Chinese vessels swarm Philippines reef in WPSC
Citing a report of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the NTF-WPS on Saturday said the hundreds of Chinese military vessels were spotted on March 7 “in line formation” at the boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef around 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf (CS).
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220 Chinese vessels swarm Philippines reef in WPSC

Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - March 22, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — About 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted within the West Philippine Sea earlier this month, according to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), prompting the Philippines to file a diplomatic protest over the presence.

Citing a report of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the NTF-WPS on Saturday said the hundreds of Chinese military vessels were spotted on March 7 “in line formation” at the boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef around 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf (CS).

The PCG counted around 220 vessels massed in the area, but they were not conducting fishing activities when sighted and their white lights were on during nighttime.

“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 national task force said in a statement.

“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,” it added.

Although the task force did not immediately lodge a protest, it assured that the government would continue to monitor the situation.

“In consonance with the Philippine commitment to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, the government shall continue to peacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives on environmental protection, food security and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea as part of its overall national security policy,” it said.

“Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a Twitter post.

The filing of the protest was recommended by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. yesterday, according to Locsin.

“I got the coordinates, so to speak. And relayed to my legal artillery, ‘Fire at will.’ Shell should be flying at first light. I don’t usually announce maneuvers but it seems everybody is baring his chest,” Locsin added.

The foreign affairs chief initially said he would only file a diplomatic protest after the spotting of hundreds of Chinese maritime militia vessels upon the recommendation of the “generals.”

The United States has previously accused China of using maritime militia to “intimidate, coerce and threaten other nations” over its claims to almost the entire South China Sea.

The resource-rich waterway is also contested by the Philippines’ neighboring countries.

In a landmark ruling on July 12, 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) found no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to a “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, and Beijing had breached the sovereign rights of the Philippines, which brought the case.

China, however, opposed and refused to honor the tribunal ruling. Beijing also refused to accept any proposal or action based on the arbitral tribunal decision that invalidated its claims to ill-defined historic rights throughout the “nine-dash line.”

President Duterte, who has cozied up to Beijing since taking power in 2016, set aside the ruling in exchange for Chinese trade and investment.

Duterte has repeatedly said conflict with China would be futile and that the Philippines would lose and suffer heavily in the process.

In 2019, the Philippines also complained after hundreds of Chinese ships were seen near Pag-asa island, also known as Thitu, which the country branded as “illegal” in a rare rebuke of Beijing.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. yesterday said it would be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs to react to the report about the vessel sightings.

Lorenzana orders vessels’ recall

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has told China to immediately recall the 220 vessels, which he said is a provocation in the area.

“We view with grave concern the presence of 220 Chinese militia boats in the Julian Felipe Reef (Union Reef) in the West Philippine Sea. This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area,” Lorenzana said in a statement.

“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS,” he added.

The defense chief stressed that this territory is well within the Philippine EEZ and CS, which the country has sole right to as affirmed by the 2016 arbitral ruling.

He said they are in coordination with other government agencies for appropriate action following the provocation.

“We are coordinating with the (PCG), (NTF-WPS) and the (DFA) for appropriate action in the context of protecting the welfare of our Filipino fishermen, our marine resources, and maintaining peace and stability in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

Air, maritime sovereignty patrols

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has ordered the dispatch of Air Force and Navy assets to conduct air and maritime sovereignty patrols in the area.

The AFP said it is still verifying the report and said there is no recommendations for action yet.

“As of the moment, we have to abide (by) the peaceful, principled and rules-based approach in resolving issues similar to these incursions,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters.

Still, the AFP said reports have been forwarded to other government agencies that could be bases for filing of appropriate actions, including the filing of diplomatic protests. – AFP, Alexis Romero, Evelyn Macairan, Romina Cabrera, Elizabeth Marcelo

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