Philippines sending Coast Guard, BFAR ships to reef

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
Philippines sending Coast Guard, BFAR ships to reef
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pointed this out yesterday in an interview with CNN Philippines. But he stressed the Navy “will be patrolling the area, the general vicinity of the area.”
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — To avoid being accused of provocation by Beijing, the military will not send naval ships to the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) now being swarmed by Chinese vessels and instead just let Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) or Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessels assert the country’s sovereignty in the area.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pointed this out yesterday in an interview with CNN Philippines. But he stressed the Navy “will be patrolling the area, the general vicinity of the area.”

As this developed, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the United States “stands with our ally the Philippines” in the face of China’s latest maritime intrusion.

“We don’t want to be accused of provoking, retaining our Navy ships in the area,” Lorenzana said.

Deployment of naval vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef might be misinterpreted as “militarizing the area,” he said. “So white ship for now; only Coast Guard or BFAR.”

He said the country is calling for the pullout of the Chinese vessels and that President Duterte himself has spoken with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian about the matter.

“The President said that we assert our right over the area according to the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) of 1982 and according to the 2016 arbitral ruling,” Lorenzana said.

“And the President told the ambassador to remove those ships because their presence is alarming Filipinos. That’s the exact word – ‘alarming the Filipino people,’” he added.

The Chinese ambassador promised to relay Duterte’s concerns to Beijing, Lorenzana said, adding there are fewer than 200 Chinese vessels now in the vicinity of Julian Felipe Reef.

He said waters around the reef are choppy but that it is relatively calm inside the reef located off Bataraza in Palawan. The Chinese claimed their vessels were just seeking refuge in the reef due to rough waters.

US stands with ally

In a tweet, Blinken said China is “working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share, and threatens our collective security and prosperity.”

“The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef,” Blinken said, referring to Julian Felipe Reef by its international name.

“We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order,” he said.

The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against Beijing over the presence of around 220 Chinese vessels believed to be militias in the reef.

The US embassy said the Chinese deployed the vessels to “intimidate, provoke and threaten” other countries. It also dismissed Beijing’s excuse that its vessels were in the reef to seek refuge from rough seas. The US said the Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, “regardless of the weather.”

For some lawmakers, the Chinese vessels also pose risk to the environment as they could run aground and damage coral reefs, just like what happened in 2013 when a US warship ran aground in Tubbataha Reef in Palawan.

“We would urge the National Task Force for the WPS to seriously consider this risk, at the rate Chinese vessels are swarming around Julian Felipe Reef,” Rep. Johnny Pimentel, chairman of the House committee on strategic intelligence, said.

The Surigao del Sur congressman said there is a “considerable risk” that a Chinese vessel might end up running aground in the shallow waters and submerged ridges of the West Philippine Sea.

As a result of the 2013 accident, the US had to pay $1.7 million to the Philippines as compensation. The US warship was eventually removed after a lengthy and costly salvage effort by US Navy contractors.

In 2018, the Philippine Navy’s own flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, ran aground while on night patrol in the vicinity of Hasa-Hasa Shoal near the Spratly Islands.

“The task force may have to prepare a contingency plan – a comprehensive course of action – in the event of such an unpleasant incident,” Pimentel said.

“It is not really good for ships to moor there for extended periods because anchors can cause extensive damage to coral reefs and reef-associated habitat such as seagrass beds,” Pimentel pointed out.

“In fact, the hazard of reef damage gets worse during bad weather owing to the risk of anchor dragging and grounding,” Pimentel said.

“We must stress that under international law, we are duty-bound to conserve and manage the natural resources within our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, while enjoying sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting such resources,” he said. – Pia Lee-Brago, Delon Porcalla

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