Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana yesterday said the government is considering stationing a ship at the disputed Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, similar to what it did at the Ayungin Shoal over 20 years ago.
Interviewed over the CNN Philippines, Lorenzana said the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea suggested grounding a tanker at the reef, about 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan.
“But is it still possible do that?” he said noting there were no people at Ayungin when government brought the landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre.
The vessel was grounded in 1999 at the Ayungin Shoal, one of the nine features currently occupied by the Philippines in the WPS. Troops occupying the shoal are staying at the grounded ship.
“There was a suggestion and we are studying it. No decision to do it,” Lorenzana said when told that the suggestion to station a ship at Julian Felipe Reef is tantamount to occupation of the reef, which is against an arrangement among countries claiming parts of the South China Sea.
The reef is being claimed by Philippines, China and Vietnam.
The three countries, together with Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, are claiming wholly or in part the South China Sea.
China is claiming the whole South China Sea. The West Philippine Sea is that part of the South China Sea, which the Philippines is claiming.
Julian Felipe Reef is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. About 220 Chinese militia ships have been seen “moored in formation” at the areas since March 7, according to the Philippine Coast Guard.
The ships, which China said are fishing vessels seeking refuge from bad weather, are still in the area.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed a diplomatic protest against China.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Chinese vessels “should have left by now for port or fishing grounds,” as the weather is already clear.
On March 22, an Air Force plane reported spotting 183 Chinese ships in the area. Five days later, another Air Force plane again saw the vessels in the area, said Lorenzana.
On March 28, Lorenzana said the Philippine Coast Guard reported no change in the Chinese presence at Julian Felipe Reef.
“Those hundreds of ships of the Chinese are still there in Julian Felipe Reef,” said Lorenzana, who reiterated his demand that China withdraw the ships from the area because their presence “its alarming the Filipino people.”
Lorenzana said he suggested to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade to maintain one ship at the reef to monitor what the Chinese are doing in the area although a Navy ship is conducting patrol in the area.
Lorenzana said the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will be fielding another ship this week to protect Filipino fishermen who may be fishing at the reef.
Lorenzana said the PCG reported rough sea in the area, giving credence to the pronouncement of the Chinese ambassador that the vessels are merely taking shelter from turbulent seas.
“I had the Coast Guard check what’s the real sea situation and they said it’s (sea) choppy, it’s very choppy outside but inside the reef, its very calm because they entered (the reef), they said its very calm inside,” he said.
“So there must be some, there is truth to the claim of the Chinese that they are there to take shelter from elements of the sea,” said Lorenzana.
Lorenzana said this time of the year is actually a fishing season because the sea is traditionally calm. “But not this time maybe because of this bad sea situation,” he said.
Lorenzana said the Chinese have been telling telling PCG and Navy ships to leave the area, which he said is what it has long been doing.
“We said we are patrolling our area. It’s just a standard exchange. They’ve been telling us that in the past for us to leave and we say no, we are here in our area,” said Lorenzana.
Lorenzana said President Duterte met with the Chinese ambassador recently to discuss the situation at the reef.
Lorenzana said the President asserted the Philippine right over the reef, citing the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea and the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
“Sinabi rin ni Presidente sa ambassador na kung pwede tanggalin yung mga ships dun dahil it is alarming the Filipino people, that’s the exact word, alarming the Filipino people. (The President told the ambassador if China could remove the vessels there because their presence is alarming the Filipino people. That’s his exact word, `alarming the Filipino people’),” said Lorenzana.
The ambassador, in response, said, “He will relay the President’s concern to Beijing,” Lorenzana said.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a Twitter post, said Washington stands with Manila “in the face of the PRCs maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef.”
“We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based order,” he added. — With Ashzel Hachero