PH probes reported Chinese attack craft's chase of Filipino civilian vessel in WPS

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 9) — The Armed Forces of the Philippines is investigating the reported harassment of a Filipino civilian vessel by Chinese Navy and Coast Guard ships in the West Philippine Sea.

The AFP launched the probe on Friday as ordered by the Department of National Defense. Both expressed concern over ABS-CBN’s report that its television crew, onboard a Filipino civilian vessel, was chased down by two missile attack craft of the Chinese Navy just around 90 nautical miles from mainland Palawan, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

"The AFP expresses concern over the report of an alleged harassment by Chinese PLA Navy vessels and a Chinese Coast Guard vessel as reported by a team of journalist on board a watercraft within our EEZ," Armed Forces spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, said a statement.

ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano said the team wanted to do a story on how Filipino fishermen are coping amid the presence of Chinese vessels around the Kalayaan Island Group, a resource-rich area the Philippines considers as part of Palawan province. The KIG is being claimed by Beijing through a historic nine-dash line that an arbitral tribunal already invalidated in 2016.

According to ABS-CBN, the local civilian vessel was four miles away from Ayungin Shoal, internationally known as Second Thomas Shoal, when it received a radio challenge from a ship of the Chinese Coast Guard. Since the message was in English, the Filipino captain was unable to respond and decided to leave instead.

“However, the China Coast Guard vessel accelerated its speed and started to chase the Filipino vessel,” ABS-CBN’s report read.

“The Chinese ship followed the Filipino ship on its path home to mainland Palawan for an hour, getting so close that bow number 5101 was visible to the naked eye, sometimes sailing beside the Filipino vessel on either side,” it added.

The China Coast Guard vessel eventually left the civilian boat, only to be replaced by two “smaller, faster vessels,” which turned out to be Houbei Type 22 missile fast attack craft, it said. The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea earlier reported spotting four Chinese Navy vessels at Panganiban Reef, also known as Mischief Reef, the largest of China’s artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys located less than 20 nautical miles from Ayungin.

Arevalo said the military's Western Command has asked ABS-CBN for raw footage and photographs “to help us establish the circumstances and document the incident.”

In the same statement, however, he reminded the media to be more prudent.

“While we understand the journalists’ insatiable desire to be ahead in reporting, we appeal to them to exercise prudence in the course of their job,” Arevalo said, noting that the AFP previously gave the media access to maritime patrol “so they can be protected while in the practice of their profession.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin, Jr. in a series of tweets said he wanted to know if the ABS-CBN team was in a passenger vessel or a boat they hired, saying the latter would be “inviting risk.”

“And you don’t give chase; you use your bullhorn to warn off,” he said.

In a separate statement, DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said AFP’s findings “will be used to coordinate any appropriate action through the NTF-WPS and engagement among the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs), DND, DOTR (Department of Transportation), and other concerned agencies."

There have been reports of Chinese vessels driving away Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, but this could be the first known case of alleged missile-capable boats doing the chase. The incident comes amid diplomatic protests filed by the Philippines against the presence of suspected Chinese militia vessels at Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan.

The landmark arbitral decision recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights within its 200-nautical mile EEZ that China contests, but the East Asian giant rejects the ruling.