The Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday summoned China’s Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian to protest the presence of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
Acting Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Elizabeth Buensuceso called Huang to the DFA to shed light on the presence of 220 Chinese vessels believed to be manned by Chinese militia at the Philippine reef since early March.
While the number of ships has dwindled over the past weeks, at least nine vessels have remained, the DFA said.
“The DFA expressed displeasure over the lingering presence of Chinese vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef. The continuing presence of Chinese vessels around the reef is a source of regional tension,” the DFA said, in a statement.
During the meeting, Buensuceso asserted to Huang that the Julian Felipe Reef is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.
Buensuceso told Huang that the 2016 arbitral award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled in favor of the Philippines, had already invalidated China’s excessive and historical claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
“The 12 July 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration ruled that claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction that exceed the geographic and substantive limits of maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, are without lawful effect,” Buensuceso said.
China, a signatory to the UNCLOS along with the Philippines, rejected the PCA ruling.
Aside from China and Philippines, other claimants over the disputed waters -- Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan — also have territorial claims over the South China Sea which analysts say could be Asia’s next potential flashpoint for a major armed conflict.
In March, the Philippines filed diplomatic protest against China over the swarming of Chinese militia vessels at Julian Felipe Reef and demanded the immediate pullout of the ships from the reef, which is located 175 nautical miles of Bataraza, Palawan and clearly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. earlier vowed to file daily diplomatic protests against China until all their ships leave the reef.
Despite repeated calls and protests from the Philippines, Chinese ships continue to linger in the area and have even been spotted in other parts of the Kalayaan Island Group in the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan off the country’s northwestern waters.
Buensuceso reminded the Chinese side of “proper decorum and manners in the conduct of their duties as guests of the Philippines” after its embassy spokesperson openly maligned Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for demanding the immediate withdrawal of China’s ships in the reef.
Although both sides affirmed the peaceful settlement of disputes in addressing the South China Sea issue, Buensuceso emphasized the Philippine government’s demand for the immediate withdrawal of all Chinese vessels from the reef and other maritime zones of the Philippines, the DFA said.
Former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario on Tuesday supported the summoning of the Chinese ambassador.
“In doing so, the DFA has acted consistent with our collective constitutional duty to protect our “national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination,” said Del Rosario, chairman of policy think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.
“This is truly the ‘independent foreign policy’ contemplated by our Constitution, which is to protect our national heritage in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
The former DFA chief said that as long as Chinese vessels remain in Julian Felipe Reef, which is part of the Philippines’ EEZ, those vessels are violating Philippine laws, which make it unlawful for any foreign person, corporation or entity to fish or operate any fishing vessel in Philippine waters.
“The lingering Chinese presence in Julian Felipe Reef is an open and continuing violation of our laws. It is but right that our leaders do whatever is necessary to address this open and continuing insult to Filipinos,” the former Foreign Affairs secretary said.
Getting the international community involved in the dispute over the South China Sea is the only way to stop China from increasing its aggressive moves in the West Philippine Sea, an expert said on Tuesday.
In a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ research fellow Dr. Collin Koh said the Philippine should welcome international involvement in the issue.
“China's greatest fear is to internationalize the South China Sea dispute. It’s the only way to prevent China from going beyond what it’s currently doing,” Koh said.
Koh also recommended the Philippine government to have a “coherent” position on the issue and match it with ground actions such as more maritime patrols over the disputed area.
Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy said the United States will invigorate and modernize its alliances to hold China to account.
For Thayer, the presence of Chinese maritime militia and fishing vessels in Whitsun Reef or Julian Felipe Reef aims to pressure the Philippine government to cut its alliance with the US.
“The present of China's maritime militia and fishing vessels in Whitsun reef, in my opinion, is designed to put pressure on [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte who equivocates on whether or not he’s going to terminate the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement),” he said.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, for her part, encouraged unity among ASEAN countries and partnership with the Quad, a strategic dialogue including the United States, Japan, Australia and India, to address the issue.
“Our government must rethink its current alliances – and perhaps its allegiances. We must be consistent and firm in standing up for our national interests,” she said in the same forum.
“We cannot allow ourselves to be kicked out of our own backyard. The West Philippine Sea is part of the patrimony of the Filipino people,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Philppine Navy said there will be no at-sea events in this year's iteration of the "Balikatan" military exercises between American and Filipino military forces.
The exercises started Monday and will end on April 23.
Last year's exercises were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Philippine Navy (PN) chief Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo said on Tuesday that the crew members of the BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna are undergoing various training and systems testing before their deployment.
"Our two frigates, FF-150 and FF-151 are conducting manufacturer's training and systems testing in preparation for their operational deployments," he added.
Both BRP Jose Rizal and the BRP Antonio Luna are capable of surface, sub-surface, air, and electronic warfare using state-of-the-art electronic sensors, long-range missiles, acoustic guided torpedoes, and an embarked anti-submarine helicopter.
BRP Jose Rizal formally joined the PN in July 2020 while BRP Antonio Luna was commissioned in March this year.
In other developments:
• The Defense Department said it discussed the developments in the West Philippine Sea with its Malaysian counterpart, with both sides reaffirming their commitment to defense cooperation. In a statement Tuesday, the department said it and the Malaysian Ministry of Defense will uphold the implementation of their 1994 memorandum of understanding.
• The Area Task Force West under the National Task Force for West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said it has intensified operations in the West Philippine Sea amid the presence of Chinese vessels in the area.
In a statement on Monday, the Area Task Force West said “sea assets shall be continuously deployed to different areas in the WPS to conduct maritime and sovereignty patrols, and other law enforcement activities.” These operations will cover the Julian Felipe Reef, Pag-asa Cay, Recto Bank, and other parts of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).
• Senator Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday expressed her indignation against China’s increasingly aggressive territorial expansion in the West Philippine Sea, after learning that there are still 28 Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef. “We demanded that every single Chinese vessel leaves Philippine territory. Why are they still there? China is becoming the region’s biggest bully," she said. She added that China exploited a global health crisis by executing a series of coordinated incursions into the WPS.
• Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate on Tuesday raised concern over the ongoing Balikatan exercises between United States and Philippine armed forces, saying they would only heighten the tension between the US and China, putting the Philippines in the middle of two competing superpowers. “It would be best for the Philippine government to assert its sovereignty on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) without playing one superpower against the other," Zarate said in a statement.
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