AFP chief orders more naval assets in West PH Sea amid presence of China ships
MANILA, Philippines — Saying that the military does not “tolerate incursions” in the country’s waters, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana on Wednesday said he ordered the deployment of more naval assets in the West Philippine Sea, where some Chinese ships have recently been spotted.
“I directed the Philippine Navy to deploy additional naval assets to the West Philippine Sea to increase our visibility and ensure the security and safety of our fishermen, [and] of course, our marine resources and integrity of our territory,” Sobejana said during his confirmation hearing at the Senate.
“We do not tolerate incursions in our territorial waters from anybody. We stand or uphold by our mandate. so that was our actions as regards to the incursions made by the Chinese militias in our territorial waters,” he added.
According to Sobejana, AFP verified the report from the Philippine Coast Guard over the weekend regarding the presence of 220 fishing vessels believed to be Chinese maritime militia at the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
“We did maritime patrol over the area and we accounted for 183 vessels. We reported that matter to the higher authorities including the Department of National Defense and we shared the same info to the National Task Force on West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS),” he said.
The AFP chief said the ships were “in formation” and while he has observed a similar situation when he was still the commander of the Joint Task Force Sulu, the number of Chinese vessels in this instance “was quite substantial.”
“When fishing boats go to rest, they do that kind of a formation. So it is not new to us but the number is quite substantial compared to the formation that I have observed in the Sulu seas. So we are trying to assess why they did such kind of a formation kasi by layer sila, as if they are forming a phalanx,” Sobejana said.
“We are trying to do some military assessment on that kind of a formation. We are jointly doing or assessing the situation with the concerned department, including NTF-WPS and whatever assessments we come out, that will dictate our subsequent action,” he added.
Further, the AFP chief said he wrote a letter to China’s defense attaché to the Philippines and invited him for a meeting Wednesday morning.
Since Sobejana had to attend his confirmation hearing, he tasked his vice chief of staff to attend the said meeting.
“We invited him to confer with us and discuss these matters, the presence of the fishing vessels believed to be [Chinese maritime militias]. This morning, they had a meeting. I delegated that meeting to my vice chief of staff and upon my return, I will ask him what had transpired during that meeting,” he added.
On Sunday, March 21, Manila filed a diplomatic protest over the presence of the vessels.
Following the protest, the Chinese Embassy in Manila denied the presence of Beijing’s maritime militia at the said reef, which China claimed as part of Nansha Qundao, one of two political districts in the South China Sea established by the Chinese government in 2020.
It said the ships were fishing vessels seeking shelter in the area.
Still, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in a strongly-worded statement, asserted that the reef lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and demanded that China immediately withdraw its vessels and maritime assets there.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who was virtually present for a separate confirmation hearing of 56 DFA officials on Wednesday, underscored the importance of having the courage to stand up against incursions.
“We must have the courage to go where probably we will not be able to go back from because if you don’t send that message to the other side, then they will just keep trenching and trenching and trenching on our territory and then our sense of nation dies,” Locsin said.