China assures PH vessels not permanent in Julian Felipe Reef, envoy says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 27) — The country's envoy to China expects the nearly 200 Chinese vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, citing Beijing’s assurance their stay is temporary.

“They assure us na hindi ito isang permanenteng sitwasyon (that this is not a permanent situation),” Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana said in an online media briefing on Saturday.

He did not mention a time frame for the ships' withdrawal, citing confidentiality of diplomatic discussions. He added, “I expect it in the coming month; we'll see an improvement of the situation.”

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Coast Guard reported on March 20 the presence of around 220 Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef close to Bataraza, Palawan and within the country's exclusive economic zone. It is internationally known as Whitsun Reef, and is part of the vast area Beijing is claiming in the South China Sea.

On Friday, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon told CNN Philippines that 34 of these vessels are now in the vicinity of Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island and Sandy Cay, north of Julian Felipe Reef. They are "backed up by two Chinese Coast Guard vessels," he added.

EXCLUSIVE: Video shows flotilla of Chinese ships around Julian Felipe Reef

Early this week, the Department of Foreign Affairs sent a diplomatic protest and demanded that China "promptly withdraw" its vessels. The Armed Forces of the Philippines also deployed more naval units to the area. Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte raised the issue in a recent meeting with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, and reaffirmed the 2016 decision of an arbitral tribunal that recognized Manila’s sovereign rights in areas within its EEZ that Beijing claims.

What the government has to do for now is to exercise a “high degree” of vigilance, monitoring, and surveillance, Sta. Romana said. He stressed that the country should remain vigilant even with China's explanation that its vessels were only taking shelter in Julian Felipe Reef due to "rough sea conditions," and that these are fishing boats, not militia vessels.

Ang ayaw nating mangyari dito na nandyan na sila permanente or na magiging occupation or reclamation ‘yan. ‘Yun ang iniiwasan natin,” the envoy added.

[Translation: What we don’t want to happen here is for them to stay permanently or it becomes an occupation or reclamation. That’s what we want to avoid.]

He said he expects the issue to be resolved in diplomatic talks, recalling how around 200 Chinese vessels also swarmed Pag-asa Island in 2019, but the numbers “diminished” after the filing of note verbale and some high-level meetings.

There are also plans to hold diplomatic discussions on the resumption of Chinese construction on Subi Reef, Sta. Romana said. Satellite images released by US-based tech firm Simularity showed China may be laying the groundwork for massive construction on the Beijing-occupied reef.

The Philippines previously protested China’s island-building activities on Subi Reef and six other reefs, and the arbitral tribunal ruled that these constitute violations to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. Beijing rejects the landmark ruling and insists on owning almost the entire South China Sea.