Chinese ships moored in great numbers in the Julian Felipe Reef are trying to drive away Philippine military “sovereignty patrols” in the area, but their warnings are being ignored by the government, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Monday, even as he disclosed proposals to anchor a tanker ship inside the reef.
“There is no physical confrontation, but there are warnings, their warnings [say] ‘do not come here.’ We [replied], ‘we are patrolling our area,” the defense chief told CNN Philippines as he provided a glimpse of the latest situation inside the reef.
Lorenzana said the exchanges between the Chinese manning the maritime militia vessels and the Filipino patrols are “standard,” saying these are regular occurrences every time the military conducts sovereignty run in the West Philippine Sea territory.
The number of Chinese ships inside the reef, which, according to Lorenzana stretches to about 30 kilometers and measures 50 kilometers in width, has not considerably decreased, with about 183 vessels still remaining, although the number may have went down from the more than 220 ships that were spotted on March 7.
Lorenzana admitted the presence of the ships inside the reef and their purpose still remain a puzzle for the government, reiterating there is no reason for them to be there despite the Chinese government’s claim that they were merely sheltering from bad weather.
“There must some reasons why they are there… the Chinese ambassador insists that these are fishing boats, and they are sheltering from turbulent seas or bad weather. Now, I, we know from experience that this period of the year, from January to May, the water is apparently calm,” the defense chief said.
“There was [no] truth in the allegation of the Chinese that they are there to hide against the [harsh] elements of the sea. This [period] is also…fishing season there…[and] the water is calm,” he added.
Lorenzana said they are intently monitoring the ships and an Air Force S-211 plane has also been sent for a regular patrol run over the reef, while the government is planning to send a vessel of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, hopefully by this week.
The government is also eyeing the deployment of a tanker ship inside the reef, but Lorenzana said this still remains a proposal from the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea and no action has been taken yet.
In mulling over the possibility of permanently berthing a tanker vessel in Julian Felipe Reef, the government is apparently attempting to replicate its move in the Ayungin Shoal where the BRP Sierra Madre, a derelict and partly submerged tanker vessel, has been permanently moored and is being used as an outpost for Marine soldiers in the area as a symbol of Philippine sovereignty.
The government, Lorenzana said, is very cautious in sending Navy ships, saying this will “militarize” the area, although the government maintains that Julian Felipe Reefs is within the country’s maritime waters.
Lorenzana maintained that the Chinese ships should leave the area, a position that he said has been conveyed by no less than President Duterte to the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, who, in turn, told the Commander in Chief that he would relay it to Duterte’s Chinese counterpart.
Image credits: ©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP