China denies militias, says fishing vessels in its territory
March 7, 2021 photo shows of Chinese maritime militia ships aligned with Julian Felipe Reef found in West Philippine Sea.

China denies militias, says fishing vessels in its territory

Pia Lee-Brago (The Philippine Star) - March 23, 2021 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Despite being confirmed by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the reported presence of 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels around Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea is just “speculation,” according to the Chinese embassy.

“There is no Chinese maritime militia as alleged. Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement.

“It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner,” it added.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest on Sunday after confirming information regarding the swarming of 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels in the vicinity of the Julian Felipe Reef, which China calls Niu’e Jiao.

The embassy admitted that some Chinese fishing vessels took shelter in the reef due to rough sea conditions. Chinese fishing vessels normally seek refuge in the area during bad weather, he said.

“Niu’e Jiao is a part of China’s Nansha Qundao. Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in its adjacent waters for many years,” the embassy said.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), citing report from the PCG, said the Chinese vessels operated within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf (CS).

The PCG first spotted the foreign vessels on March 7, 2021.

The vessels were not conducting fishing activities when sighted and their white lights were on at night.

Former foreign affairs chief Albert del Rosario said the government should summon Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and make him explain why the Chinese intrusion into Philippine waters should not be treated as an act of unilateral aggression.

He lauded the government’s issuing a diplomatic protest in response to the reported swarming of vessels in the reef.

“Given the gravity of this development, we should consider summoning the Chinese Ambassador in the Philippines to ask why we should not consider this Chinese action at Julian Felipe Reef to be an act of unilateral aggression against the territorial integrity of our country,” Del Rosario said in a statement.

“We should seek consultation with our security partners like the US, EU, UK, Australia and Japan on how to move forward with this recent act of Chinese aggression,” he added.

Still in the area

Despite the Chinese embassy’s denial, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the Chinese vessels were still in Julian Felipe Reef as of yesterday.

“They’re still there. We’re carefully counting them and later we will share with you our take on their presence,” he told reporters.

AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo also confirmed that a patrol mission was completed at around 11:30 a.m. and the report on the same is being prepared by the military’s Western Command (WESCOM) headed by Vice Admiral Ramil Enriquez.

“The AFP maintains that it will oppose any acts of incursions or encroachment in our sovereign territory. Our mandate includes ensuring that our fisherfolk and our kababayans can freely take advantage of our maritime resources and conduct their livelihood in our EEZ,” the AFP chief said.

“Nonetheless, we will pursue rules-based approach of resolving the issue at hand – consciously taking into account the call of the Secretary of National Defense (Delfin Lorenzana) for the Chinese to stop the incursion and immediately recall those sighted ships encroaching in our territory,” he added.

In a radio interview, Arevalo said the military – as an “instrument of national power” – is ready to deploy forces to areas “where we are directed to go at the time and period as required from the AFP.”

No Panatag

For Malacañang, the problem over the presence of Chinese maritime militia ships in Julian Felipe Reef is unlikely to escalate to something similar to the 2012 Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal standoff.

“I don’t think so because we have a close friendship,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said at a press briefing when asked if he thought the incident would lead to a situation similar to what happened in Panatag nine years ago.

“Everything can be discussed by friends and neighbors,” he added.

Panatag Shoal is situated 124 nautical miles from the nearest point in Zambales and is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile EEZ.

In 2012, a standoff ensued after Chinese vessels stopped Philippine Navy ships from arresting Chinese poachers. China has since maintained its presence in the traditional fishing ground.

“Under international law, that’s what we should do, file a diplomatic protest. Let us wait for the response of China,” the Palace spokesman said.

Senators, meanwhile, expressed support for the filing of diplomatic protest against Beijing.

“We are behind the government in asserting our rights in our seas. We may not be as strong militarily but we are certainly strong legally, morally and diplomatically,” Sen. Francis Pangilinan said in a statement.

“We may not be as big or as strong as their military, but we’re on the right side because this is ours,” he said in Filipino.

He lamented that “while the world is busy battling COVID-19, China is unabated in its militarization and expansionism in the (West Philippine Sea).”

He said it appeared that Beijing was using the donated vaccines to the country as a “geopolitical weapon.”

Pangilinan called for more support for the AFP as well as closer coordination among concerned agencies in confronting Chinese encroachment in the West Philippine Sea.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros called the presence of Chinese vessels a “severe provocation” that only escalates tensions in the South China Sea.

“While we’re stumbling with the continued rise in COVID-19 cases, China brazenly enters our waters. Not aggravating the tensions in our seas is the absolute least China could have done in the middle of a global pandemic. It could not manage to show even respect,” Hontiveros said.

She said the presence of the Chinese vessels in the country’s waters does not build peace or stability in the region.

As the diplomatic protest takes its course, Hontiveros said the government should also study more tangible ways to make China pay. – Paolo Romero, Alexis Romero, Michael Punongbayan

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