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Australia weights in on Chinese boats’ intrusion

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Australia on Wednesday joined the United States and Japan in expressing concern over Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea after Manila protested the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels moored near the Julian Felipe Reef, which is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“We remain concerned about destabilizing actions that could provoke escalation,” Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson said on Twitter.

Robinson said Australia supports an Indo-Pacific region that is secure, open and inclusive.

“The South China Sea – a crucial international waterway – is governed by international rules and norms, particularly UNCLOS,” he said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Australia’s statement came just a day after both the United States and Japan spoke out on the issue, opposing any action that would drive up tension in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.

Earlier, Japan stressed that issues related to the South China Sea are directly related to the region's peace and stability and a "concern for all" as it reiterated support for "free, open, and peaceful seas" and the enforcement of the rule of law.

China hit back at Japan, accusing it of “acting as a vassal state” of the US.

“It is a pity that some Asian country, which has disputes with China in the East China Sea and is driven by the selfish aim to check China's revitalization, willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal of the US,” its embassy in Manila tweeted.

The Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a diplomatic note protesting the swarming and has called on Beijing to immediately withdraw its vessels near the reef and all relevant Kalayaan Island Group features.

In a statement Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington stands with Manila as its defense ally "regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC (People's Republic of China) maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef."

"We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security," he said on Tuesday night.

The US Embassy in Manila earlier claimed that Chinese boats have been mooring in the area "for many months in ever-increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.”

British Foreign Minister Nigel Adams also noted the UK's concerns on the South China Sea, particularly actions which raise tensions in the region.

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Wednesday said the presence of 220 Chinese militia vessels in the West Philippine Sea may be a prelude to China’s ultimate goal of seizing Julian Felipe Reef.

Carpio, who has been urging the government to strongly assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights over disputed maritime territories in the South China, said Manila should be wary of the presence of the Chinese ships at Julian Felipe Reef, citing the Chinese occupation of the Mischief Reef in 1995.

"The way I look at it, this is a prelude to occupying Julian Felipe Reef, just like what they did to Mischief Reef in 1995. They started [by] saying they just built a fishermen shelter on Mischief Reef. Now, Mischief Reef is their air and naval base, they call it their ‘Pearl Harbor’ in the South China Sea," Carpio said, in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel. 

"I’m particularly worried that they will now start claiming, building on Julian Felipe Reef just like what they did on Mischief Reef," he added.

On Monday, China denied the presence of militia vessels in the area even as it insisted that the reef was part of Chinese territory. It also said the reef, called Niu’e Jiao by China, was traditionally used as a shelter by its fishing vessels during inclement weather.

Carpio refuted China’s assertion, saying "no storm was anywhere near Julian Felipe Reef."

Carpio suggested that the Philippines should rally world opinion against China’s latest provocation in the South China Sea, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

This could include taking China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

“We are harnessing world opinion here if we use the rule of law and that is our strength because we know we have the law on our side. We should use it to the hilt,” he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who adopted a conciliatory approach towards China, is expected to discuss the issue on Julian Felipe Reef with China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, Malacañang said without saying when the meeting would take place.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines confirmed on Monday that about 183 vessels believed to be Chinese maritime militia were sighted by a Philippine air patrol in Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, about 175 nautical miles off Palawan.

In response to American criticism, the Chinese Embassy in Manila took to Twitter and even tagged the official handle of the US Embassy in the Philippines to tell Washington to stay out of the South China Sea issue.

"The US is not a party to the South China Sea issue. Fanning flames and provoking confrontation in the region will only serve selfish interests of individual country and undermine the regional peace and stability," it said.

It added that both China and the Philippines are sovereign and independent countries and "have the will, wisdom, and ability to properly handle relevant issues through bilateral channels."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., meanwhile, sought to separate China’s vaccine donations to the Philippines from the maritime dispute, saying the two were unrelated subjects.

The statement came following concerns raised by Carpio that the donations could be Beijing's way of "softening the blow" of the unauthorized presence of over 200 Chinese ships on the Philippine exclusive economic zone this month.

"No, it is not. Unrelated. Any diminution of commitment to the totality of our rights in the West and South China Sea would disobey President Rodrigo Duterte's United Nations declaration and is tantamount to disloyalty to the Republic," Locsin said on Twitter.

A total of 400,000 doses of CoronaVac vaccines arrived in Manila on Wednesday morning, bringing to 1 million the total Covid-19 jabs Beijing donated to the country.

In an interview on the sidelines of its arrival, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian described the aid as an act of goodwill to help a neighbor better respond to the pandemic.

But Deputy Speaker and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez asked if the government was trading maritime resources for vaccines.

At the same time, Rodriguez reiterated his appeal for the House of Representatives, and eventually the Senate, to pass his bill defining the country’s maritime areas and territory.

He said the massing of more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels in Juan Felipe Reef off Bataraza town in Palawan took place within eight days from the delivery of the initial 600,000 Covid-19 shots donated by China and within one week from the rollout of the vaccine.

“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.

He said Julian Felipe Reef, like the Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal off Zambales and Pangasinan in the north, “is part of our country’s exclusive economic and exploration zone (EEZ) under international law, and all resources in that area rightfully belong to the Filipino people.”

“We are grateful to China for the donated vaccine but we must condemn in the strongest possible terms this newest intrusion into our EEZ. The donation should not give them reason to enter our territory and violate our territorial integrity,” he said.

He also expressed doubt on Beijing’s claim that their fishing flotilla took shelter in the reef due to rough sea conditions. “If that were the case, they should have left the area, because it has been more than two weeks since they were discovered,” he said.

“What are their intentions there?” he asked.

Also on Wednesday, Senator Richard Gordon urged Locsin to summon the Chinese Ambassador and advised against Duterte’s meeting with the envoy, saying he would just reiterate China’s official policy.

"[It is] in effect a rebuff to His Excellency The President of the Republic of the Philippines. Eh di mukha tayong basang sisiw (We'll appear lame)," Gordon said in a tweet. With PNA


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