Some of the Chinese maritime militia vessels have left Julian Felipe Reef after berthing in the area for three weeks, but these ships have redeployed in swarming numbers in other features within the country’s maritime waters that China disputes.
The movement of the Chinese militia vessels was revealed by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) on Wednesday, even it reiterated the government’s demand to these vessels to leave the West Philippine Sea, maintaining that these are indeed maritime militia ships, contrary to the claims of Beijing.
“The NTF-WPS reiterates its assertion of Philippine sovereignty, and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the KIG [Kalayaan Island Group] and West Philippine Sea [WPS], and expresses deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence [or swarming] of the Chinese Maritime Militia [CMM], which did not pull out and have remained in Julian Felipe Reef [or Whitsun Reef] and are now in other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group in the Municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan,” the NTF-WPS said in a news statement issued on Wednesday.
The presence of these Chinese vessels, numbering more than 200, was first reported by the Philippine government on March 7 to have berthed in military type formation in the Julian Felipe Reef, with China claiming they were there to seek shelter from bad weather.
Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, however, said there was no truth to Beijing’s claims since the weather was fine and the waters at the reef were calm, noting onset of the fishing season in the WPS, which China wholly claims.
The NTF-WPS said the number of Chinese ships at the Julian Felipe has scaled down and left only to fan out to other areas of the KIG and the WPS, the military reported.
“After our three rounds of routine aerial and maritime sovereignty patrol missions complemented by the filing of a diplomatic protest by the Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA], the number of CMM [Chinese maritime militia] recorded at two hundred twenty  on 7 March 2021, remained high at one hundred eighty-three  on 22 March 2021 and one hundred ninety-nine  on 27 March 2021,” it said.
“On 29 March 2021, forty-four  CMM remain moored, anchored, and stationary in Julian Felipe Reef. In addition, one hundred fifteen  CMM vessels are now monitored in Chigua [Kennan] Reef, forty-five  vessels in Pag-asa [Thitu] Islands and the other fifty  vessels are dispersed in Panganiban [Mischief], Kagitingan [Fiery], and Zamora [Subi] Reefs, all within the Kalayaan Island Group,” the military report added.
The task force, chaired by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., said four People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) vessels were also spotted in the Panganiban Reef, which “forms part of the exclusive economic zone [EEZ] and continental shelf of the main Philippine archipelago.”
The task force also urged China to pull out all the ships as these pose danger to navigation, aside from possibly damaging the reefs.
“The Philippines calls on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag. NTF-WPS stands by its observation that these so-called ‘fishing’ vessels are maritime militia. Their build-up and massing formation from Julian Felipe Reef to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea,” the NTF-WPS said.
“They may be doing illicit activities at night and their lingering [swarming] presence may cause irreparable damage to the marine environment due to marine pollution and destruction of coral reefs. Their swarming also poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ,” it added.
The task force reiterated the government’s determination to secure the country’s maritime waters and assert its sovereignty, adding that it had already increased the deployment of maritime vessels from the Navy, Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
At the same time, the task force welcomed the support of other states to the Philippines over the current imbroglio.
“The Philippines appreciates the statements of support from its international partners who share common adherence to rules-based order consistent with international law, including the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], as affirmed by the 2016 Arbitral Award. Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China’s assertion of its so-called ‘indisputable’ integrated sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, part of which is the WPS,” the task force stressed.
With Samuel Raphael P. Medenilla
Image credits: AP