BY VICTOR REYES and ASHZEL HACHERO
CHINESE maritime militia vessels are still at the contested Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea yesterday, 15 days after they were first sighted by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said.
He said the military conducted aerial patrols and are carefully counting the vessels.
The PCG has said there were about 220 ships in the area which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The reef is about 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan. It is occupied by Vietnam but is being claimed by the Philippines and other countries.
Sobejana declined to say results of the aerial inspection.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila yesterday denied there were Chinese militia vessels in the area, adding some fishing vessels took shelter near the reef due to “rough sea condition.”
“There is no Chinese maritime militia as alleged. Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner,” the embassy said.
Calling the reef Niu’e Jiao, the embassy also said it is part of its Nansha Islands or Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs on Sunday night said it filed a diplomatic protest over the presence of the Chinese militia ships at the Julian Felipe Reef.
Beijing claims the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea which is the Philippine-claimed part of the waters.
In 2016, the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration debunked China’s sweeping claim in the area as it ruled in favor of the Philippine’ case but Beijing refused to honor the arbitral ruling and insisted on bilateral talks to address the maritime territorial dispute.
AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said a military fixed-wing aircraft flew from the AFP Western Command (Wescom) headquarters in Puerto Princesa City at around 8:40 a.m. yesterday for the maritime patrol.
The aircraft was back at the Wescom headquarters before noon, he said.
Arevalo declined to elaborate on the result of the maritime patrol, saying he is waiting for a formal report to Sobejana from Vice Adm. Ramil Roberto Enriquez, Wescom chief.
Arevalo said the report will also be submitted to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, through the Department of National Defense.
It was the task force that reported the sighting of the 220 Chinese vessels at the reef, on Saturday night. The task force said the PCG sighted the vessels on March 7 “moored in line formation” at the reef.
Arevalo reiterated the Armed Forces is committed to protecting the country’s territory.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday night expressed “grave concern” over China’s latest actuation and said the defense and military establishments are “committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS.”