US backs Philippines in standoff over reef

In this photo provided Sunday, March 21, 2021, by the Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea, some of the 220 Chinese vessels are seen moored at Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef), South China Sea on March 7, 2021. The Philippine government expressed concern after spotting more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels it believed were crewed by militias at a reef claimed by both countries in the South China Sea, but it did not immediately lodge a protest.

The United States said Tuesday it’s backing the Philippines in a new standoff with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea, where Manila has asked a Chinese fishing flotilla to leave a reef. China ignored the call, insisting it owns the offshore territory.

The US Embassy, in a news statement, said it shared the concerns of the Philippines and accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region.”

“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” the US Embassy in Manila said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has formally lodged a protest and demanded that China “promptly withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets in the vicinity and adjacent waters of relevant features in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea, and to direct its fishing vessels to desist from environmentally destructive activities.”

Julian Felipe Reef in the Kalayaan Island Group, the DFA statement asserted, lies in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

“We reiterate that the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction,” the statement added.

“China’s continuing infringements and tolerance thereof, notwithstanding the persistent and resolute protests of the government of the Republic of the Philippines, are contrary to China’s commitments under international law and the Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” the statement read.

Further, the Philippines calls on China to faithfully honor its obligations as a State Party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to respect and abide by the final and binding 12 July 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration.

Chinese boats have been mooring in the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather, a statement sent by Embassy Spokesman Heather Fabricant stated.

“We note Secretary of Defense [Delfin] Lorenzana’s call for the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to recall the boats and Secretary of Foreign Affairs [Teodoro] Locsin Jr.’s filing of a diplomatic protest,” the statement added. “We share the concern of our Philippine allies.”

On Monday, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian denied reports that boats are massing in Julian Felipe reef.

He said these are Chinese fishing vessels, not Chinese maritime militia, “seeking shelter due to rough seas” at Niu’u eJao, which is part of China’s Nansha Qundao located in the contested areas of the Spratlys (West Philippine Sea).

Beijing denied the vessels were maritime militias. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation,” the Chinese Embassy said in a news statement issued on Monday. “It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”

The Armed Forces of the Philippines said it would confer with the body in charge of the West Philippine Sea on its course of action on the swarming of Chinese maritime militias at the reef.

“Our mandate is to secure our territory. So we really oppose any act of incursions into our territorial waters, including our exclusive economic zone. But on the other hand, the National Task Force for West Philippine Sea takes into consideration other means,” said Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana on Tuesday.

“So, jointly, we will assess and we will decide what is the best course of action that could be done in the area,” the top military official added.

The task force is headed by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who also disclosed about the sightings of eight Chinese fishing vessels in Pagasa Island located near the Julian Felipe Reef where Chinese maritime militia vessels have illegally berthed since March 7.

Sobejana said the maritime patrol that the military conducted on Monday at the reef documented at least 183 militia vessels, although an earlier government report indicated at least 220 ships.

The patrol, carried out by the Western Command, was ordered by Sobejana to give the military a complete and validated report on the illegal presence of the ships at the reef.

The chief of staff said the joint assessment with the task force will “dictate” the military’s “next course of action.”

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich and busy waterway for decades.

Image credits: Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea via AP

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