PH military chief finds Chinese vessels’ formation suspicious
MANILA, Philippines — The Armed Forces chief, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, on Wednesday said the military-style formation of about 200 Chinese vessels at a reef within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea was suspicious, prompting him to direct the Navy to monitor their activities and protect Filipino fishermen in the area.
Also on Wednesday, former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a critic of China’s maritime policy and actions, said Beijing’s COVID-19 vaccine donations to the country could be the Chinese government’s way of “softening the impact” of its encroachment into the West Philippine Sea.
House Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez also expressed concern about the timing of the presence of the Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef off Palawan province, which were discovered on March 7, a week after the arrival of 600,000 doses of the vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech of China.
“This sequence of events makes many of us wonder if there is a connection between the vaccine donation and China’s latest incursion in the West Philippine Sea, if we did not exchange marine resources for vaccine,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday.
‘Like a phalanx’
At his confirmation hearing before the Commission on Appointments (CA), Sobejana said he was familiar with fishing vessels grouping together when they “go to rest.”
“So it is not new to us,” he said. “But the number is quite substantial.”
“So we are trying to assess why they did such kind of formation, because they were lined up in layers … as if they were forming like a phalanx. So we are trying to do some assessment on that kind of formation,” he said.
A phalanx is a military formation dating back to ancient times where troops are lined up in rows with the front that faces the enemy serving both defensive and offensive functions.
Sobejana, whose ascension to four-star general was approved by the powerful Senate-House body, said the Philippine Coast Guard first reported the presence of 220 fishing boats “believed to be Chinese militias.”
As a result, he ordered the deployment of additional naval vessels to the area to increase visibility and ensure the safety of Filipino fishermen and the security of marine resources.
The military counted 183 Chinese vessels still at the reef as of Monday this week. The reef is located about 324 km west of Bataraza — the town at the southern tip of Palawan.
“We do not tolerate incursions in our territorial waters from anybody. We stand or uphold our mandate,” Sobejana said.
He said the Armed Forces of the Philippines and other concerned departments were still assessing the situation and would not be quick to judgment considering the geopolitical stakes.
Sobejana said AFP officials met with the Chinese military attaché on Wednesday morning to discuss the presence of the Chinese vessels at the reef. He did not disclose details of the meeting.
Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian on Wednesday maintained that the vessels were only “taking shelter.”
“As neighbors, we are helping each other in trying times, this is another joint effort which shows the kind of closer friendship and partnership between our two countries,” he said of the vaccine donation when another 400,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine arrived on Wednesday in Manila.
In a television interview, Carpio pushed the government to accelerate the procurement of other vaccines so that the country would not be dependent or “soft” on China.
“It is possible that China is encroaching on our maritime zones but softening it by sending us vaccines, by donating to us vaccines,” Carpio said.
“It’s part of their PR (public relations) effort to soften the blow. We should not fall for that,” he added. “Whenever they do something like that, they soften it with appeasement. They are trying to appease us by sending us vaccines.”
But Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the vaccine donation was not connected to the presence of the Chinese vessels at the reef, which Manila protested diplomatically on Sunday.
“No it is not. Unrelated,” Locsin said in a Twitter post in reaction to Carpio’s statement.
“Any diminution of commitment to the totality of our rights in the West and South China seas would disobey [President Duterte’s] UN declaration and is tantamount to disloyalty to the Republic,” Locsin said.
Rodriguez said the country was grateful to China’s vaccine donations but the Philippines “must condemn in the strongest possible terms this newest intrusion into our EEZ (exclusive economic zone).”
“The donation should not give them reason to enter our territory and violate our territorial integrity,” he added.
At another CA meeting, Locsin said the modernization of the AFP was urgently needed to protect Philippine interests against other claimants in the West Philippine Sea not just through diplomacy.
He said that even if the Philippines did not have “the military means to give a bloody nose,” the country had a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, “which says very clearly that any attack on a Philippine vessel … is an attack on the United States.”
The country is also backed by international law and the 2016 international arbitral award, which recognized Philippine maritime sovereignty and also invalidated China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea, he said.
—WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS, JULIE M. AURELIO AND DAPHNE GALVEZ
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