Task force answers China radio message: Withdraw your militia
A Philippine military plane patrolling the West Philippine Sea this week spotted scores of Chinese vessels at several reefs within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and received several radio messages telling it to leave the areas claimed by China.
In response, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) on Wednesday demanded that China “immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag,” noting that they were Chinese maritime militia in waters over which the Philippines had sovereign rights.
The task force repeated the same demand contained in a formal diplomatic protest filed by Manila on March 21 against the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer EEZ.
“The NTF-WPS reiterates its assertion of Philippine sovereignty, and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the [Kalayaan Island Group] and [WPS], and expresses deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence (swarming) of the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM), which did not pull out and have remained in Julian Felipe Reef and are now in other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group in the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan,” the task force said in a statement.
President Duterte himself had spoken with China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, to express the government’s concern over the presence of the large number of Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe. The ambassador said they were just fishing boats seeking shelter from bad weather.
The NTF-WPS reported that 220 militia vessels were first seen at the reef by the Philippine Coast Guard on March 7. The number went down to 183 on March 22, then rose to 199 on March 27.
More at other reefs
There were 44 left as of Monday but the task force said more than 100 such vessels were monitored at other reefs—115 at Chigua (Kennan) Reef, 50 others dispersed around Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery) Reef and Zamora (Subi) Reef, and 45 off Pag-asa (Thitu) Island occupied by Filipinos—all part of the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group.
Four Chinese Navy ships were also seen at Panganiban.
China had built artificial islands with reclaimed land from these four reefs and in other parts of the South China Sea that are within the Philippine EEZ. China has turned them into military outposts, with runways and missile emplacements.
The Chinese began occupying Panganiban in 1995. It is now the biggest of the seven artificial islands built by China.
In 2016, the international arbitral tribunal invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea, and ruled that, among other things, Panganiban was part of the Philippine continental shelf. Beijing refused to recognize the ruling.
On Tuesday, a Philippine military plane flying over the disputed waters carrying military photographers and several local journalists, received at least five messages from a Chinese radio operator telling the pilot to leave the area.
“You are approaching a Chinese reef,” one radio call said. “To avoid any move that may cause misunderstanding, please leave immediately.”
Another message specifically referred to Zamora as a Chinese reef.
The Filipino crew gave a uniform response: “This is Philippine government aircraft. We are conducting routine maritime patrol over Philippine EEZ and we are proceeding according to our planned route.”
Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the overflight patrols would continue despite the “radio challenge” from the Chinese.
“It’s not the first time [that it happened]. And those challenges have been customary. Hence, our reply is likewise customary,” he said.
He said the military “could not readily say” that the vessels found at the other reefs had come from Julian Felipe.
According to the NTF-WPS, the mass formation of the Chinese maritime militia is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea.
“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,” its statement said. “Their swarming also poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ.”
A similar swarming was undertaken by the Chinese on Pag-asa, the largest island in the KIG occupied by Filipino troops and civilians. Around 140 Chinese vessels moored off the island in July 2019 and more than 130 in January-February 2020.
The AFP said the presence of the Chinese vessels near Pag-asa had notably increased since 2018, after the Philippines began building a beaching ramp and sheltered port on the island.
The NTF-WPS expressed Manila’s appreciation for the statements of support from other countries which “share common adherence to rules-based order consistent with international law, including the 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 said.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Wednesday said it may now be “imperative” for the Philippines to hold joint patrols with the United States, its sole defense treaty ally, “to confront the bullying tactics of China in the West Philippine Sea.”
“We must show the world and especially China that we are a country that will fight for our rights and able to enforce our laws in our own EEZ,” he said in a statement.
Del Rosario said an agreement on joint patrols was approved by Manila and Washington following meetings he held before stepping down with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was then deputy secretary of state.
But that was shelved by President Duterte on fears that China would be “displeased,” he said.
Locsin off to China
“However, China’s duplicity and invasion of our waters remain unabated despite the efforts of President Duterte to appease China,” Del Rosario added.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Wednesday said he would visit China this week to hold talks with the Chinese foreign minister.
The foreign ministers of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia are also attending the meeting with Wang Yi. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING, ROMAR MIRANDA AND TINA G. SANTOS
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