Chinese militia ships swarm Julian Felipe Reef in West Philippine Sea
MANILA, Philippines — At least 135 Chinese militia ships were seen “swarming” Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea during a patrol by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on Saturday.
Separate patrols carried out by the PCG and the Armed Forces of the Philippines in mid-November had observed the “illegal presence” of at least 111 Chinese ships on the reef located 324 kilometers (175 nautical miles) west of Bataraza, Palawan province, well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
This prompted National Security Adviser Gen. Eduardo Año, who also chairs the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), to order another maritime patrol in response to the “alarming development,” PCG spokesperson for West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela said in a statement.
The PCG’s BRP Sindangan and BRP Cabra challenged the Chinese ships on radio during a patrol on Saturday but they received no response. The ships were “dispersed and scattered” around the reef.
Julian Felipe Reef is considered a low tide elevation within the territorial sea of relevant high tide features in the Kalayaan Island Group, including Chigua Reef, over which the Philippines has sovereignty, Tarriela said.
Chinese militia vessels have been aiding China Coast Guard (CCG) ships in harassing Philippine boats on a resupply mission to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
The Philippines first called attention to the “swarming” on Julian Felipe Reef in 2021. At the time, China said the vessels were only taking shelter due to rough sea conditions.
Several diplomatic protests have since been filed over the presence of Chinese ships in these waters.
Use of water cannon
Early last month, a Chinese vessel again used a water cannon to drive away a Philippine boat on a resupply mission to Philippine troops stationed in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
However, the NTF-WPS said the Chinese Coast Guard’s attempt to change the route of the military-commissioned resupply vessel failed.
“CCG vessel 5203 deployed water cannon against Philippine supply vessel ML Kalayaan in an illegal though unsuccessful attempt to force the latter to alter course,” the NTF-WPS said.
It also said CCG vessels and suspected Chinese maritime militia ships “recklessly harassed, blocked, executed dangerous maneuvers in another attempt to illegally impede or obstruct a routine resupply and rotation mission to BRP Sierra Madre.”
Last August, the CCG also used water cannon against PCG vessels escorting boats delivering supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, which was grounded on Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to assert Manila’s claim on the sandbank that is located about 194 km (105 nautical miles) from Palawan.
The CCG had claimed that the Philippine vessels “trespassed” Ayungin Shoal even if the sandbank is well within the Philippines’ EEZ.
The NTF-WPS has frequently condemned China’s “unprovoked acts” and described such behavior as “consistent” and “systematic.”
“The systematic and consistent manner in which the People’s Republic of China carries out these illegal and irresponsible actions puts into question and significant doubt the sincerity of its calls for peaceful dialogue,” the task force said.