‘I am no fool. Leave now,' Lorenzana tells Chinese vessels at West PH Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 3) — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he won't be fooled by China's excuse of bad weather for the presence of its vessels at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

In a strongly worded statement on Saturday, Lorenzana told Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian he "has a lot of explaining to do" about the 44 Chinese vessels still moored at Julian Felipe Reef almost two weeks after the government demanded that they leave.

Also known as Whitsun Reef, Julian Felipe is a shallow coral reef close to Bataraza in Palawan, well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea on March 20 reported the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels in the area. The Chinese government said they were only seeking shelter due to "rough sea conditions," but aerial and maritime patrols this week showed 44 ships are still there, and over 200 others are in different reefs in the Kalayaan Island Group, which the Philippines considers part of Palawan province.

"I am no fool," Lorenzana said. "The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there."

"These vessels should be on their way out," he added. "Umalis na kayo diyan (Leave that place now)."

In response, the Chinese Embassy in Manila called the Secretary's statement "perplexing" and reiterated its claim that the reef is part of China's Nansha Islands. The Embassy added it was "completely normal" for Chinese fishing vessels to fish near the reef.

"The waters around Niu'e Jiao (Julian Felipe Reef) has been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years," said a statement attributed to the embassy's spokesperson. "Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities."

The Department of Foreign Affairs on March 21 filed a diplomatic protest and demanded that China "promptly withdraw" its ships. Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana said last week Beijing gave its assurance that its vessels are only temporarily staying at Julian Felipe Reef.

Meanwhile, the Palace said President Rodrigo Duterte had raised the issue in a meeting with the Chinese envoy and reaffirmed the country’s arbitral win in the South China Sea dispute. China claims most of the global waterway, including parts of the West Philippine Sea.

An arbitral tribunal in 2016 invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims and recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights to parts of its EEZ, which the East Asian giant contests. It also ruled that China's island-building activities on several reefs in the Kalayaan Island Group 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 refuses to recognize the landmark ruling.

This week, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said government forces also spotted "illegal" mand-made structures in Pagkakaisa Banks or Union Banks, a group of features in the Kalayaan Island Group that includes Julian Felipe Reef.

The government has increased the deployment of Navy, Coast Guard, and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels in the area to augment routine patrols and assert the country's sovereignty.