By J.C. Gotinga and Jojo Rinoza
Manila said Wednesday that patrols had spotted nearly 300 Chinese militia ships in and around its exclusive economic zone earlier this week, amid bilateral tensions over the lingering presence of such vessels in Philippine-claimed waters of the South China Sea.
Manila has been lodging daily protests with Beijing since last month after China refused to remove the more than 200 ships which, the Philippines said, were spotted in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in March.
A report about the latest sightings in the Spratly Islands was submitted to the relevant agencies for potential further diplomatic action, Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said.
“In its latest maritime patrol on 9 May 2021, the Area Task Force-West reported the presence of a total of two hundred eighty-seven (287) Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels scattered over various features of the municipality of Kalayaan, both within and outside the EEZ of the Philippines,” Esperon said in a statement Wednesday.
The Kalayaan municipality is a chain of islets and reefs that the Philippines administers as part of its southwestern Palawan province.
Esperon said “bigger groups of CMMs” were seen at some Chinese-built artificial islands, while others were seen near islands occupied by the Philippines.
On May 9, Philippine patrols had spotted two Chinese Houbei-class missile warships at Mischief Reef, and three other warships at Fiery Cross Reef, he said. China has turned both reefs into artificial islands with harbors for its vessels.
The patrols also found four China Coast Guard ships at Scarborough Shoal, and one each at Second Thomas Shoal and off Thitu Island, Esperon said.
Thitu – called Pag-asa Island by the Philippines – hosts a small civilian community and a marine detachment.
Earlier this week, Philippine armed forces chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the military planned to ask President Rodrigo Duterte for funds to build a logistical hub on Thitu.
“Our objective is to drive away Chinese maritime militia and other Chinese vessels from our exclusive economic zone,” Sobejana told CNN Philippines on Monday.
Last month, Sobejana said the Philippines was considering building structures in Manila-claimed areas in the South China Sea. He had accused China of doing the same, despite a 2002 agreement barring new or expanded construction in disputed waters.
‘34 Chinese vessels still at Whitsun Reef’
Meanwhile, Manila’s patrols also spotted Chinese fishing boats and a small number of Vietnamese ones, officials said.
Between May 3 and May 10, Philippine patrols observed two Chinese vessels “harvesting shells” inside the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal, in contravention of Beijing’s unilateral fishing ban supposedly in effect from May 1 to August 16, Esperon noted.
In 2012, the Chinese seized Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground within the Philippine EEZ, after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy.
“The Philippine government continues to strengthen its presence in the WPS [West Philippine Sea] with a view towards law enforcement, deterrence of illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing (IUUF), and protection of the welfare and safety of our fisherfolk,” said Esperon, who is also head of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.
“The latter are encouraged to sail and fish in the WPS.”
The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s designation for territory it claims in the South China Sea.
The task force will continue to assert “our territorial and sovereign rights as upheld by the 2016 arbitral ruling,” Esperon said.
A July 2016 international arbitral award declared the Philippines’ claim to its EEZ in the South China Sea valid over China’s sweeping territorial claims in the maritime region. The Philippines went to an arbitral court after China refused to with its vessels from Scarborough Shoal.
Beijing has refused to recognize the award.
Esperon said that 34 Chinese vessels were still at Whitsun Reef, where Manila’s discovery of 240 such boats in March resulted in the latest spat with Beijing. Whitsun is located within the Philippine EEZ, and Beijing also claims the reef in the Spratly Islands as part of its South China Sea territory.
Meanwhile, Philippine Coast Guard ships, backed by vessels from the fisheries bureau, drove out three suspected Chinese militia vessels at Sabina Shoal on May 7-8, according to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).
A Chinese coast guard ship “illegally shadowed” and challenged vessels of the Philippine coast guard and the fisheries bureau on May 4, the NTF-WPS said.
“This [May 4] incident, along with the continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands have been submitted to relevant agencies for possible diplomatic actions,” said Esperon.
The Philippines, he said, “shall not yield an inch of our territory.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on Esperon’s statements
‘A national tragedy’
The controversy over the presence of Chinese ships in the Philippine EEZ has led to criticism of Duterte’s alleged softness toward China, despite territorial disputes.
The president had recently defended his stance, saying his government owed a “debt of gratitude” to Beijing for supplying the country with COVID-19 vaccines amid a global supply crunch.
Then last week, he said it would be impossible to compel Beijing to respect the arbitral award, and called it “just a piece of paper” that he would “throw in a wastebasket.”
Duterte’s attitude toward Beijing is “a national tragedy,” Albert del Rosario, who was the country’s top diplomat when Manila took China to court, said last week.
“Grand larceny” is how Antonio Carpio, a former supreme court justice who helped argue and win the South China Sea case, described Duterte’s statement on the arbitral award.
Six Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, in addition to Beijing’s sweeping claims in the waterway.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.