PH gov't demands withdrawal of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef

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The Philippine government is demanding the removal of what appears to be 183 Chinese maritime militia vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) which is within the country's exclusive economic zone. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — The Philippine government is demanding the removal of nearly 200 Chinese fishing and maritime vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) which is within the country's exclusive economic zone or EEZ.

"The Philippines demands that China promptly withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime vessels in the vicinity and adjacent waters of relevant features in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea, and to direct its fishing vessels to desist from environmentally destructive activities," the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Tuesday.

The department said the vessels in the reef were "unauthorized" and "blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions."

The government also called on Beijing to honor its obligations to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Armed Forces earlier confirmed that 183 vessels were spotted in the EEZ even after the government lodged a diplomatic protest against the East Asian giant. 

READ: Suspected Chinese militia boats refuse to leave Julian Felipe reef in West PH Sea despite protest

The National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea first reported the presence of 220 supposed Chinese maritime militia vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef on Saturday. It noted that the vessels were not conducting any fishing activities at the time.

The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines had denied that maritime militia are present at the Julian Felipe Reef, arguing that those are merely fishing vessels which took shelter near the area due to rough sea conditions.

"Those vessels are taking shelter in the part of the sea. I think it's a normal activity," Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian said in a chance interview on Wednesday. "There is no such militia vessel as claimed by some people. Any speculation is not helpful."

In a previous statement, the Chinese Embassy said the reef is part of China's Nansha Qundao, also known as Spratly Islands - a hotly contested archipelago in the South China Sea.

The embassy also rejected the statement of its American counterpart, saying the US is "not a party to the South China Sea issue."

"Fanning flames and provoking confrontation in the region will only serve the selfish interests of individual country and undermine the regional peace and stability," it added.

In 2016, a landmark ruling of an arbitral tribunal in The Hague recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights in areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf that are being claimed by China. The ruling also invalidated China's sweeping claims to the South China Sea, where other claimants include Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. However, China continues to reject this ruling.

In December 2020, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative 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 part of 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.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Jose Manuel "Babe" Romualdez, the Philippines' envoy to the US, maintained that the Biden administration will continue to recognize the Philippines' arbitral win.