220 Chinese militia ships spotted in disputed waters

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    ABOUT 220 alleged vessels believed manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel were spotted “moored in line formation” at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said late Saturday, citing information from the Philippine Coast Guard.

    The task force said the presence of the vessels is a cause for concern due to “possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation.”

    The reef, also called Whitsun Reef, is located some 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan and is within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. It is occupied by Vietnam but is also being claimed by the Philippines and other countries.

    The Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam claim parts of the South China Sea while China claims almost all of it. The West Philippine Sea is the Philippine-claimed portion of the South China Sea.

    Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana expressed “grave concern” over the reported incursion.

    “This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area. These are territories well within Philippine exclusive economic zone and Continental Shelf where Filipinos have the sole right to resources under international law and the 2016 arbitral ruling,” he said.

    “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,” said Lorenzana.

    Lorenzana said the DND is coordinating with the Philippine Coast Guard, the task force, and the Department of Foreign Affairs “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.”

    China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment yesterday, and calls to the Chinese embassy in Manila seeking comment went unanswered.

    Philippine Coast Guard chief Adm. George Ursabia begged off when asked for more details about the PCG report. He said the issue is being handled by the task force and Presidential Communications Operations Office.

    National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said the NTF-WPS, which he chairs, is verifying if the vessels are still in the area.

    On whether the government will protest or drive away the Chinese fishing vessels if they are still at the reef, Esperon: “We are studying it, we are trying to confirm if they are still there.”

    Armed Forces chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said he has ordered the military’s Western Command (Wescom) to validate the report.

    The task force described the site as “a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs.”

    It said the vessels were not seen conducting fishing activities during daytime. At night, white lights from the vessels were on.

    “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 night time,” it said.

    Sobejana said he is waiting for a report from Wescom chief Vice Adm. Roberto Enriquez on the reported presence of the ships.

    He said that during his visit to the Wescom headquarters in Puerto Princesa City on March 15, “the information was not reported or the information has not reached us.”

    Sobejana could not say if the ships are still in the area

    AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said Wescom is waiting for a “suitable and available aircraft to conduct the (validation) mission.”

    “The AFP will not renege from our commitment to protect our maritime interest within the bounds of the law,” he added.

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque yesterday said Malacañang defers to the Department of Foreign Affairs on the matter.

    Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, asked whether he would file a diplomatic protest over the ships’ presence, told a journalist on Twitter: “Only if the generals tell me. In my watch foreign policy is the fist in the iron glove of the armed forces.”

    An international tribunal in 2016 invalidated China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, but Beijing does not recognize the ruling. China in recent years has built islands in the disputed waters, putting air strips on some of them.

    In January, the Philippines protested a new Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a “threat of war.”

    The United States has repeatedly denounced what it called China’s attempts to bully neighbors with competing interests, while Beijing has criticized Washington for what it calls interference in its internal affairs.

    In December last year, the US think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative warned of China’s increased patrols in the disputed waters, including the WPS, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

    It said China has conducted patrols for more than 200 days last year in the Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, which is the site of a standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in 2012.

    In May last year, the DFA also protested the confiscation by Chinese coast guard personnel of fish aggregating devices or “payaos” of Filipino fishermen at the Panatag Shoal. — With Jocelyn Montemayor, Ashzel Hachero and Reuters