Palace: Duterte brought up ships at Julian Felipe Reef with China envoy

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
Palace: Duterte brought up ships at Julian Felipe Reef with China envoy
This March 22, 2021 aerial photo shows Chinese vessels still present in the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
Armed Forces of the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte has raised the Julian Felipe Reef incident with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and has insisted that the issue be resolved according to the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Malacañang said Thursday.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte and Huang met in person but that their conversation was not limited to the West Philippine Sea row. He clarified that even before the presence of Chinese ships at the reef was reported to the public, Huang had wanted to meet Duterte to greet the president for his birthday.

Duterte will celebrate his 76th birthday on March 28.

"That's why the President said he would bring it (Julian Felipe Reef incident) up, it was because a personal visit by the ambassador has been scheduled. So, it was a personal visit between two very close friends," Roque said at a press briefing.

"And on the side, of course, the president reiterated what he said before the UN, that we are standing by and protecting our territory, that we believe it should be resolved through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and we stand by our victory at the arbitral tribunal," he added.

Roque said the envoy had cited an embassy press release, which claimed that the Chinese fishermen were at the reef to seek refuge from the bad weather.

The Palace spokesman could not tell when the meeting, which he described as "more of a social birthday meeting," took place, merely saying that it happened while he was in isolation.

Roque, also the spokesman of the government's pandemic task force, has been isolating himself since March 15 after catching COVID-19.

Last Sunday, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said about 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels were seen at the Julian Felipe Reef, which is located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.

The reef is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf, over which the Philippines enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources. The Philippines has protested the presence of Chinese ships at the reef.

Pressed if Duterte mentioned the Philippines' demand for China to remove the ships at the reef, Roque replied: "Well, nagkaintindihan naman po ang Presidente. Sinabi po ng Pangulo na medyo...well, concerned po talaga tayo ‘no dahil kahit sino namang bansa ay maku-concern kung ganiyan kadaming mga barko (There was an understanding. The President said he was really concerned because any country would be concerned with the presence of such a number of ships)."

"Ang sabi naman po ng Chinese ambassador, sila po ay mga mangingisda na, iyon nga po, nandoon sila dahil (The Chinese ambassador said they are fishermen and they were there because) they are seeking shelter also," he added.

Roque said there is no controversy surrounding the presence of ships at the reef because they are not insisting to remain in the West Philippine Sea.

Asked what would happen if the Chinese ships refuse to leave, Roque expressed optimism that the issue would be resolved because of the close friendship between the Philippines and China.

"China said the fishermen were there because they were seeking refuge from bad weather. We hope the bad weather will already pass and in the spirit of friendship, we expect that the ships will not remain there," Roque said.

Fisherfolk urge government to ensure their safety

A fisherfolk group on Thursday urged the government to ensure the safety of Filipino fishers in the West Philippine Sea amid the presence of Chinese ships there.

In a statement, the group Pamalakaya said fishermen from Palawan, Batangas and the Mindoro provinces frequent the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, but now fear for their safety over the presence of the Chinese vessels.

"We can't help but be alarmed of what possibly could happen to Filipino fisherfolks conducting livelihood in our traditional fishing grounds with these big foreign vessels around," said Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya national chairperson said.

Fisherfolk also sought for a "more decisive yet peaceful approach" to make the ships leave and scored government's action which they described as slow.

“If our authorities could not dispel the Chinese vessels," Hicap added, "the least they could do is to escort our fisherfolks in Julian Felipe Reef, and ensure that no bad thing would happen to them during fishing operations."

Filipino fisherfolk have reported being harassed and denied access to traditional fishing grounds by Chinese Coast Guard vessels.

In the House of Representatives, members of the progressive Makabayan bloc urged the chamber to condemn and probe the presence of the said ships. 

In a resolution, lawmakers warned that Beijing's move could eventually result in the establishment of a military base in the reef.

They added: "With the continuing harassment by the China Coast Guard and the Chinese deployment of maritime militias, Filipinos were deprived of the natural resources in its own territory.” — with Philstar.com/Christian Deiparine and Xave Gregorio







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