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DFA demands withdrawal of China vessels from reef

Pia Lee Brago - The Philippine Star
DFA demands withdrawal of China vessels from reef
Despite a Philippine diplomatic protest, Chinese vessels remained at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea yesterday.
AFP

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines yesterday demanded that China withdraw its maritime militia vessels from Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, saying their continued presence and activities in the area “blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

“The Philippines demands that China promptly withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets in the vicinity and adjacent waters of relevant features in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea, and to direct its fishing vessels to desist from environmentally destructive activities,” the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement.

The DFA issued the statement two days after it filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing over the Julian Felipe Reef incursion.

“China’s continuing infringements and tolerance thereof, notwithstanding the persistent and resolute protests of the government of the Republic of the Philippines, are contrary to China’s commitments under international law and the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” it added.

“Julian Felipe Reef in the Kalayaan Island Group lies in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. We reiterate that the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” the DFA added.

This developed as the United States embassy said it stands with the Philippines in opposing the presence of some 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels in the reef.

“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” the US embassy said in a statement.

“We share the concerns of our Philippine allies,” the US embassy added, noting Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s call for Beijing to recall the boats as well as DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s filing of a diplomatic protest.

It said Chinese presence in the reef was meant to “intimidate, provoke and threaten” other countries in the region.

“Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather,” the embassy pointed out.

It was the Philippine Coast Guard which reported the swarming of the foreign vessels in the reef, which is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Earlier reports said the Chinese vessels numbered 220.

China denied on Monday the report on the presence of its vessels in the area, calling it “speculation” that causes “unnecessary irritation.”

As of yesterday, there were 183 Chinese maritime militia boats in the vicinity of Julian Felipe Reef based on latest surveillance, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana. The reef is located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.

He told reporters yesterday the situation would be jointly assessed by the military and the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea.

“Understandably, our mandate is to secure our territory so we really oppose any act of incursion in our territorial waters, including our exclusive economic zone,” Sobejana said.

“But on the other hand, the NTF-WPS takes into consideration other means so jointly we will assess and we will decide what is the best course of action that we can do in the area,” he added.

For now, Sobejana said the AFP would continue its maritime patrols.

Asked what the military would do if the Chinese vessels remain in the area or if more of them arrive, he said the joint assessment to be conducted “will dictate our subsequent course of action.”

Duterte’s Panatag crisis

An expert in maritime affairs said Julian Felipe Reef could become President Duterte’s Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal if China refuses to pull out its vessels and even enforces restrictions on Filipino fishermen.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, was referring to the standoff between the Philippine Navy and China’s maritime surveillance ships in Panatag Shoal that eventually ended with the Chinese seizing control of the shoal in 2012 during the second Aquino administration.

The standoff was triggered by the Chinese pressuring Philippine Navy personnel into releasing Chinese poachers and their illegal catch. The Chinese have since maintained a menacing presence in the shoal.

The standoff prompted Manila’s filing of a case with the International Arbitral Court contesting China’s massive claim in the South China Sea. The court decided three years later in favor of the Philippines.

Batongbacal said letting the Chinese keep their overwhelming presence in Julian Felipe Reef this time would be another serious blow to the Philippines’ shaky jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea.

“If China does not draw down the Peoples’ Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) presence and then enforces its exclusionary measures against Filipino fishermen who have been using Union Banks as a fishing ground for decades, Whitsun Reef will become President Duterte’s Scarborough Shoal,” Batongbacal said.

“Unlike the experience of his predecessor, who lost control over Scarborough Shoal after a prolonged standoff, Duterte’s loss of control will be attributed to his overly accommodating and prone posturing over the West Philippine Sea since 2016,” he added.

He pointed out that President Duterte himself stated last year that China was in “possession” of the South China Sea and that it was futile to act against it.

“This is all the signal China needs to confirm his real lack of resolve. Nearly five years of downplaying Chinese moves and kowtowing to Chinese positions in the contested maritime region have enabled Beijing to create a fait accompli such as turning Whitsun Reef into an anchorage,” Batongbacal said.

To address this potential crisis, he said the Duterte administration should drop its over-accommodation of China in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, a militant fisherfolk group said it expects the country’s defense sector to at least enforce the basic rules of engagement through a peaceful confrontation to drive away the Chinese vessels out of Philippine waters.

The Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) said it is demanding the AFP and the Department of National Defense (DND) “act decisively and accordingly” on China’s “blatant display of force” in Philippine waters.

The group expressed disappointment at government’s “snail-paced line of attack” even after confirming China’s latest encroachment.

“Why is the government’s response to this obviously foreign invasion of our territory so slow? It’s been more than two weeks since the Chinese vessels were spotted in our waters and yet the armed and defense forces seem to be stuck on a passive monitoring stage,” Pamalakaya national chairman Fernando Hicap said in a statement.

“Their tedious actions contradict the word defense itself, they only act as spectators,” he added.

The group earlier said the diplomatic protest filed by the DFA was “weak and insufficient” as it was not accompanied by a “determined assertion.” –  Michael Punongbayan, Rhodina Villanueva

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