Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana urged Manila to be “vigilant” as Chinese ships continued to stay at the Julian Felipe Reef, describing the movement as a “matter of concern.”
St. Romana told a public press briefing, they were closely monitoring the movement of some 200 ships supposedly present in the area due to bad weather.
“What’s important is that we monitor and follow China’s next steps because according to them, they are seeking shelter from bad weather. Our goal is to monitor and see what the movement will be on the ground because they have assured that this is not a permanent situation and they are denying that there is militia,” he said.
Earlier this week, President Rodrigo Duterte asserted the international court’s 2016 arbitral ruling favoring the Philippines against China’s massive claims in the disputed West Philippine Sea during his meeting with Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian, Malacañang said.
The presidential assertion came as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief-of-staff, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, ordered the deployment of additional Philippine Navy ships to bolster the conduct of maritime sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
The National Task Force on the WPS earlier raised the alarm about a Philippine Coast Guard report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.
On July 12, 2016, the special arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on most of its submissions. It clarified that it would not “... rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory and would not delimit any maritime boundary between the Parties.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte raised the issue when the Chinese envoy visited the President to greet him for his birthday. Duterte is turning 76 on March 28.
“The President is not surrendering our sovereignty by not aggressively pursuing the arbitral ruling in our favor rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” he said.
Sta. Romana added: “The lesson here is we have to be vigilant. Vigilance is the price of sovereignty. We should see if this (departure) is implemented. We have to heighten our vigilance,” Sta. Romana added.
While Sta. Romana said the presence of the ships in the area was a “cause of concern,” he maintained that the public “does not have to panic,” saying China had promised to withdraw the ships once the weather improved.
“If you could recall, this also happened in 2019. But we don’t have to panic. If we can recall this also happened with Pag-Asa island when Chinese militia swarmed the area. We had a protest and diplomatic exchange. Gradually, the ships became fewer. We should be concerned with but we don’t have to panic.
“We just have to exercise a high degree of vigilance, a high degree of monitoring and see what happens on the ground. I expect that this matter can be resolved with an abundance of diplomacy and given the friendly relations with Philippines and China and their assurance that this is not a permanent situation,” Sta. Romana added.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. already filed a diplomatic protest to have China recall the 220 boats moored in the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef.
The reef is situated within the West Philippine Sea, the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety, conducting militarization and island-building activities.
Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio earlier described the incursion as a prelude to occupation.
Meanwhile, Canada joined other nations in calling out China for its recent incursions in the West Philippine Sea, saying the actions of the world’s second largest economy “undermine regional stability.”
“Canada opposes recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including off the coast of the Philippines, that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order,” Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur said in a tweet.
China, on the other hand, lashed back at its critics for coming out with “irresponsible comments” and “using the same scripts.”
“Neither these diplomats understand the basic facts, nor do they have the ability to think and judge independently,” the Chinese Embassy in Manila said on Twitter.
“If the so-called ‘facts’ are false from the beginning, you couldn’t be more wrong to repeat the mistakes. Understand and respect the facts before you make any comments,” the Chinese embassy added.
Earlier this week, the United States, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom also criticized China’s recent action which retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned might be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base as it did to Mischief Reef in 1995.
“The [People’s Republic of China] uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region… We share the concerns of our Philippine allies,” the US Embassy had said in a statement.
“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” it added.
“The South China Sea issues are directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all,” said Japanese Ambassador Kazuhiko Koshikawa, that is why his country “strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions.”
Manila demanded China’s immediate withdrawal from the reef, which is being claimed by Beijing as part of its territory.
From 220 on March 7, about 183 Chinese vessels have remained in the area.
China said the vessels were merely seeking shelter from bad weather – a claim dismissed by the US, saying they have been moored there “for several months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of weather.”
In a statement Thursday, AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said the additional naval presence in the area aimed to reassure the Filipino people that the military remained committed to protecting and defending them from harassment.
“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the AFP’s strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground which is the source of their livelihood,” he said.
Roque reiterated the President’s pronouncement before the UN that he would protect Philippine territory, and “we believe that this can be solved through the UNCLOS and that we affirm our victory in the arbitral tribunal.”
Roque admitted that the President was really concerned because “which country would not be concerned about that many ships?”
The Chinese official reportedly reiterated that the 220 ships spotted at the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea were only fishing vessels merely “seeking refuge” from the bad sea conditions.
The Palace official maintained there was really no controversy because they were not insisting to stay there and would leave the area – but he did not say when.
Due to the vastness of the country’s maritime domains, Arevalo said the AFP’s Western Command was the government’s “eyes and ears” by providing vital information on what is happening in that part of the Philippines.
“The importance of the data obtained from our littoral monitoring stations, from our Marines manning the islands, islets, and features they occupy, and those from regular aerial and maritime sovereignty that are contained in our reports to the NTF WPS (National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea) cannot be overemphasized,” he added.
Aside from these measures, the AFP likewise resorts to non-traditional means to manage the issues arising in the WPS.
“AFP representatives engaged on March 24, 2021 their Chinese counterpart in a meeting to discuss the situation obtaining in the WPS as reported. We conveyed the Defense Secretary’s (Delfin Lorenzana) demand for the vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef where 183 vessels were sighted per AFP’s recent aerial patrol,” Arevalo said.
In the meeting, China’s People’s Liberation Army representatives reiterated their government’s assurance that those ships were not manned by militia and that those were constrained to seek shelter in the area when inclement weather hampered their fishing activity.
“He also committed to making himself available to discuss and explain any future issues involving the PLA,” Arevalo said.