Chinese fleet asks PH aircraft over Julian Felipe Reef to ‘leave immediately’

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 31) — A Philippine military aircraft patrolling the West Philippine Sea received at least five radio challenges from Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef, asking it to “leave immediately."

Members of the media who were given rare access to Tuesday's maritime patrol on board a tactical military transport aircraft recorded the radio communications from the Chinese fleet.

“You are approaching a Chinese reef… please leave immediately,” the Chinese forces said in one of the radio challenges.

The aircraft of the Philippine Air Force responded, “This is Philippine government aircraft... we are conducting routine maritime patrol over Philippine EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and we are proceeding based on our planned route.”

The latest aerial patrol showed that 44 Chinese ships remained moored at Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun, located some 175 nautical miles east of Bataraza, Palawan and well within the country's EEZ. On March 20, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea reported the presence of over 200 Chinese vessels, which it believes to be part of China's maritime militia.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines explained that China's radio challenges “have been customary” in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are included in Beijing's sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson, said Philippine forces have also been giving a standard response to the radio challenges.

He added that aside from the 44 Chinese vessels seen in Julian Felipe Reef, 92 others were sighted in Chigua Reef, an area that covers McKennan and Hughes Reefs. Some 84 other vessels were spotted in Burgos Reefs, internationally known as Gaven Reefs. The AFP “cannot readily say” if these were among the 183 Chinese ships it spotted around Julian Felipe Reef last week, Arevalo said.

The task force on Wednesday reported a different set of figures, citing three rounds of routine aerial and maritime sovereignty patrol missions conducted as of Monday. It said over 200 Chinese vessels have been scattered in the Kalayaan Island Group in the disputed Spratlys.

It also said some 115 were in Chigua Reef. Forty-five other Chinese vessels were around Pag-asa Island, also known as Thitu, the seat of of the municipal government of Kalayaan under Palawan province. The remaining 50 vessels were dispersed in Panganiban, Kagitingan, and Zamora Reefs, internationally known as Mischief, Fiery, and Subi Reefs, respectively. Four Chinese Navy vessels were also in Panganiban Reef, the task force noted.

The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier filed a diplomatic protest and demanded that China "promptly withdraw" its ships. Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana said Beijing gave its assurance that its fishing vessels are staying in Julian Felipe Reef only temporarily to take shelter from rough sea conditions.

Meanwhile, the Palace said President Rodrigo Duterte had raised the issue in a meeting with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and reaffirmed the country’s arbitral win in the contested waters.

An arbitral tribunal in 2016 invalidated Beijing’s vast claims in the South China Sea and recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to parts of its EEZ which the East Asian giant contests. China rejects the landmark ruling.

CNN Philippines' David Santos contributed to this report.