Suspected Chinese militia boats refuse to leave Julian Felipe reef in West PH Sea despite protest

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — Over a hundred vessels believed to be Chinese maritime militia remain situated at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea as of Monday despite warnings and diplomatic protest lodged against China, the chief of Armed Forces has confirmed.

AFP chief of staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said on Tuesday that 183 Chinese vessels were spotted inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. He said they will assess the situation with the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea on the next course of action, adding they will continue to patrol the area to monitor if the boats are leaving or increasing in number.

"From our MARPAT (maritime patrol) yesterday, we sighted around 183 vessels believed to be CMM (Chinese Maritime Militia)," he told reporters.

The National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea on March 20 said it received a report that around 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted moored at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7. It said the incident reported by the Coast Guard was a cause for concern since the vessels at the time were not seen conducting fishing activities and their white lights were turned on during nighttime.

The next day, the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against China. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana ordered the Chinese to stop the incursion and immediately recall the boats that "are violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory."

"This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area... We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS," he said in a statement on March 21.

A 2016 landmark ruling of an arbitral tribunal in The Hague recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights in areas within its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf that are being claimed by China. The ruling also invalidated China's sweeping claims to the South China Sea, where other claimants include Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The US Embassy in Manila supported the Philippines' diplomatic protest.

"The [People's Republic of China] uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region," Embassy spokesperson Heather Fabrikant said in a statement. "We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia."

However, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines denied maritime militia are present at the Julian Felipe Reef, arguing that those are merely fishing vessels which took shelter near the area due to rought sea conditions. It said the reef is part of China's Nansha Qundao, also known as Spratly Islands - a hotly contested archipelago in the South China Sea.

Maritime expert Dr. Jay Batongbacal said that if China's claim is factual, the presence of Chinese boats fishing within the Philippines' EEZ remains a violation of the country's sovereign rights. He added it will also have environmental implications on the reef known to be a fishing ground of Filipinos.

He also warned that if maritime militia continue to hound the Julian Felipe Reef, the Philippines may see a repeat of the standoff between a Philippine warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels in Scarborough Shoal back in 2012.

"If the continuous presence of the maritime militia results in the exclusion of Filipino fishers from the Union Banks (of which Whitsun Reef is part), it will be comparable to the loss of access to Scarborough Shoal in 2012," he said in a statement.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in December 2020 warned that China may have “increased the frequency” of its patrols in the South China Sea during the COVID-19 pandemic, including areas Manila claims as part of the West Philippine Sea. In the same report, the US think tank flagged that Chinese forces conducted patrols at Scarborough Shoals, also known as Panatag, for a total of 287 days from Dec. 1, 2019.

CNN Philippines' David Santos and Tristan Nodalo contributed to this report.