Chinese ‘militia’ vessels now scattered in West PH Sea, task force says

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. says this photo was taken in Julian Felipe Reef between March 7 and March 27. "Just showing you how big they are," he says.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 31) — Some 44 Chinese vessels are still at Julian Felipe Reef while more than 200 others have moved to different areas in the Kalayaan Island Group, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said Wednesday.

The task force, which first reported the presence of over 200 Chinese ships at Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun, last March 20, stood by its observation that these are part of China’s maritime militia despite Beijing’s denial. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. noted that these vessels are 60-100 meters long, saying photos taken from recent sovereignty patrols show just "how big and imposing" they are.

Over the weekend, 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.

Aerial and maritime patrol missions however show that as of Monday, 44 of these vessels “remain moored, anchored, and stationary” in Julian Felipe Reef, located close to Bataraza, Palawan within the country’s exclusive economic zone, the task force said in a statement.

The rest of the vessels are scattered within the Kalayaan Island Group in the disputed Spratlys. Most, or 115 of the vessels were monitored in what is called by the Philippines as Chigua Reef, which covers McKennan and Hughes Reefs.

Meanwhile, 45 Chinese vessels were seen in Pag-asa Island, internationally known as Thitu, seat 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 Cross, and Subi Reefs. The task force noted that four Chinese Navy vessels were also in Panganiban Reef.

An arbitral tribunal in 2016 ruled that China’s island-building activities on these reefs and four others constitute violations to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS and “have caused devastating and long-lasting damage to the marine environment.”

China rejects the ruling, which also recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to parts of its EEZ which Beijing contests. The East Asian giant insists on owning almost the entire South China Sea, including areas Manila claims as the West Philippine Sea.

The task force said it has increased the deployment of Navy, Coast Guard, and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels in the Kalayaan Island Group to augment routine patrols and assert the country’s sovereignty.

“Their build-up and massing formation from Julian Felipe Reef to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea,” the task force said.

“They may be doing illicit activities at night and their lingering (swarming) presence may cause irreparable damage to the marine environment due to marine pollution and destruction of coral reefs. Their swarming also poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ,” it added.

The task force reiterated the government's call for China to pull out its vessels. The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier sent a diplomatic protest and demanded that China "promptly withdraw" its ships. President Rodrigo Duterte also raised the issue in a recent meeting with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, and reaffirmed the landmark arbitral ruling, the Palace said.