Locsin files diplomatic protest over presence of Chinese vessels at reef in West PH Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 21) — Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. lodged on Sunday a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of over 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef, which is within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

"Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can't wait for first light,” Locsin said in a tweet on Sunday.

The move was recommended by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon on Sunday afternoon, according to the DFA chief. Locsin earlier said he was only awaiting the directive from Hermogenes and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to fire the protest, adding he “listens only to the generals.”

On Saturday, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea said it received a report that around 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted on March 7 at the Julian Felipe Reef.

According to the task force, the incident reported by the Coast Guard was a cause for concern since the vessels at the time were not seen conducting fishing activities and their white lights were turned on during nighttime.

“The NTF-WPS notes this circumstance as a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation,” it said.

Lorenzana also expressed alarm over the sighting, saying the presence of the Chinese vessels is a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”

He stressed that under international law and the 2016 arbitral ruling, Filipinos have the sole right to resources in territories within the country's EEZ and continental shelf.

“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” Lorenzana said. “We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS.”

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Cirilito Arevalo likewise issued a statement condemning any move of encroachment in Philippine territory, but added that the AFP will continue to pursue a "peaceful, principled, and rules-based approach” in resolving issues in the disputed sea.

“We will defer to the decision of the Department of National Defense and Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the matter,” he said.

“Our utmost priority remains to be the protection of our citizens in the area, particularly our fishermen, through increased maritime patrols,” he added.

It is unclear based on the statement if the vessels are still docked in the reef but the task force said it will “continue to monitor the situation.”

The reef is claimed by China and Vietnam, but an arbitral tribunal in The Hague recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone. However, China rejects the landmark ruling.

In December last year, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative had warned that China may have “increased the frequency” of its patrols in the South China Sea during the COVID-19 pandemic, including areas Manila claims as the West Philippine Sea. In the same report, the US think tank flagged that Chinese forces conducted patrols at Scarborough Shoals, also known as Panatag for a total of 287 days from Dec. 1, 2019.

READ: China ‘normalizes presence’ in West Philippine Sea with more patrols — US think tank