Lorenzana: China’s continued stay at reef shows intent to occupy

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    DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana yesterday expressed fear that the continued stay of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea is a prelude to occupation of the area which is 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan, which is well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

    Lorenzana aired the concern as he said he was appalled by remarks of the Chinese Embassy in Manila to justify the presence of its maritime militia vessels at the West Philippine Sea which is the Philippine-claimed portion of the South China Sea which China wholly claims.

    “The utter disregard by the Chinese Embassy in Manila of international law especially the UNCLOS (United Nations on the Law of the Sea) to which China is a party is appalling,” he said.

    “Its nine-dash line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal,” he added, referring to the 2016 ruling of the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration which favored the Philippines and nullified China’s nine-dash claim over the South China Sea.

    Lorenzana said China should respect Philippine sovereignty over the area and its sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone as defined by UNCLOS and affirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

    “The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea. They have done this before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and at Panganiban Reef, brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law,” said Lorenzana.

    China gained control of Panatag Shoal, off Zambales, after a standoff with Philippine ships in2012. The Panganiban Reef or Mischief Reef, which is also well within the Philippines’ EEZ, has been occupied by China since 1995.

    “As a party to the DOC (Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea), China should refrain from conducting activities that disturb regional and international peace and security,” said Lorenzana.

    On Saturday, Lorenzana said the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines has a lot of explaining to do as to why the Chinese vessels are still in the area despite improved weather condition. The embassy has said the Chinese ships, which it said are fishing and not militia vessels, sought shelter at the reef due to rough sea condition.

    Lorenzana said he is no fool, adding the Chinese have no reason to stay longer at the reef.

    In response, the Chinese embassy said it finds Lorenzana’s remarks “perplexing,” adding the reef is part of China and it is normal for the Chinese to fish and to seek shelter during rough sea condition at the reef which it said is a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen.

    On March 7, the Philippine Coast Guard reported sighting some 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels “moored in formation” at the reef. The Department of Foreign Affairs then filed a diplomatic protest against China for the incursion. The Chinese embassy later said the the vessels are merely fishing vessels which sought shelter at the reef due to rough sea condition.

    On March 22, an Air Force plane sent to conduct maritime patrol spotted 183 Chinese ships still at the reef area. On March 30, another military plane sighted 44 Chinese ships in the area.

    “The Philippines’ claims stand on solid ground, while China’s do not,” Lorenzana said yesterday.

    Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.yesterday said he is considering filing another protest over the continued presence of Chinese ships at the reef.

    Locsin’s remark came after the New York Times came out with an article on April 3 titled, “With Swarms of Ships, Beijing Tightens Its Grip on the South China Sea.”

    The article reported the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels at the reef and said that after building artificial islands, Beijing is now using its large fleet of boats to press its claim on the disputed waters and ease out other claimant countries.

    The other countries claiming parts of the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

    Locsin said on Twitter: “Oddly, if it is a strategy and not idiocy then swarming accomplishes nothing. They’re doing this in consonance with claim of traditional fishing. Coming and going fishing makes no claim of possession per se, it is only when Chinese embassy claimed the area as Chinese territory – as evidenced by the swarm – that it becomes problematic.” — With Ashzel Hachero