Chinese coast guard ships remain in West PH Sea, says task force

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 28) — At least five Chinese Coast Guard ships have remained in the West Philippine Sea, despite the Philippines' continued filing of diplomatic protests against their presence in waters under the country's jurisdiction.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea reported Wednesday the "continued illegal presence" of three Chinese Coast Guard vessels in Bajo de Masinloc or the Panatag Shoal off Zambales, one in the municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan, and another one in Ayungin Shoal .

"These incursions 'are under review' for possible filing of diplomatic actions," the NTF-WPS said in its statement, where it reported on its monitoring activities during the period April 15 to 22.

It added that there were no direct incidents between the CCG and Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea during that period. An average of 20 Filipino fishing and service boats were also monitored fishing within Bajo de Masinloc.

In an interview with CNN Philippines' The Source, task force chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said nine Chinese vessels were last spotted in Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) west of Palawan Island, but authorities are still determining how many of them are militias and fishing vessels.

"We are currently studying this. We know that some of them are Chinese maritime militias, we know that some are Chinese fishing vessels. But if you have 200 [that were previously] there, if they are fishing vessels, they could be getting so much fish. If they are Chinese maritime militia, then they are a force to be reckoned with," he said.

The NTF-WPS reminded "all stakeholders in the region of their respective commitments under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," and underscored "the importance of diplomacy and sincere discussion in exploring areas of cooperation."

The Philippine Coast Guard, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and the Philippine National Police Maritime Group are already working together to send out vessels for law enforcement and for the safety of Filipino fishermen, the task force noted.

Esperon said maritime patrols and capacity building exercises are ongoing in the municipality of Kalayaan, Bajo de Masinloc, and other areas amid continued CCG presence.

"We are deploying more Bureau of Fisheries assets and Coast Guard assets...some of the exercises are even done within our territorial seas, 12 nautical miles beyond our shorelines. But we can perfectly do it within our EEZ," he said.

Beijing continues to reject the 2016 landmark ruling of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague which recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf that Beijing contests.

The Department of Foreign Affairs previously said at least 78 diplomatic protests have been filed against China under the Duterte administration.