EXCLUSIVE: Video shows flotilla of Chinese ships around Julian Felipe Reef

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 26) — Chinese ships surround Julian Felipe Reef from different directions, a recent aerial footage of this feature in the West Philippine Sea shows.

Surveillance video obtained by CNN Philippines’ Chief Correspondent Pia Hontiveros from a highly placed defense source shows the flotilla of Chinese fishing vessels around the boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef, internationally known as Whitsun Reef. It is located close to Bataraza, Palawan within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Most of the Chinese vessels were grouped together in line formations, while others were scattered, as seen in the two-minute video of the shallow coral reef. It is not clear when the video was taken. 

A view from the south shows two fishing vessels, one Chinese and the other Vietnamese. From the northeast were dozens of Chinese vessels lined up close to each other. From the northern part of the reef, most of the ships were spread out, although a few remained in clusters.

There were a total of 183 Chinese vessels, according to the source. This is similar to the figure given by Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana during his confirmation hearing at the Commission on Appointments on Wednesday.

This could mean some of the ships had left, considering that the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Coast Guard reported on March 20 the presence of around 220 Chinese vessels.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. told CNN Philippines on Friday that 34 of these vessels are now in the vicinity of Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island and Sandy Cay, north of Julian Felipe Reef. They are "backed up by two Chinese Coast Guard vessels," Esperon said.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea earlier said the vessels were part of China's maritime militia, a claim China has denied. The Chinese Embassy in Manila said in a statement on Monday that these were fishing vessels taking shelter in the area “due to rough sea conditions.”

The video, however, shows clear skies, which could be a sign of good weather during the surveillance. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also questioned the sheer number of vessels, why they were moored together, and why they were staying in an area that is "open sea and not conducive for sheltering."

According to a 2019 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Vulcan, Inc., the largest force in the disputed Spratlys is the fishing fleet that serves, “at least part-time, in China’s maritime militia,” as evidenced by their lack of fishing activities and their tendency to congregate around reefs occupied by China or held by other claimants.

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS, told CNN Philippines’ New Day on Friday that since China continues to deny the operations of its militia, the Philippines has to “rally international pressure” and call out Beijing’s “illegal behavior.” Otherwise, Poling said China’s ships would continue to swarm even Philippine-occupied features like Pag-asa Island, which was also surrounded by over 200 Chinese vessels in 2019, prompting Manila to file a diplomatic protest.

Early this week, the Department of Foreign Affairs sent a diplomatic protest and demanded China to "promptly withdraw" its vessels from Julian Felipe Reef. The Armed Forces of the Philippines also deployed more naval units to the area. Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte raised the issue in a recent meeting with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, and reaffrimed the country's 2016 arbitral win, according to the Palace.

An arbitral tribunal in The Hague recognized areas within the Philippines' EEZ which the Chinese government contests, thereby invalidating the East Asian giant's sweeping claim to the South China Sea, which included areas Manila claims as part of the West Philippine Sea. China rejects the landmark ruling.

CNN Philippines' David Santos and Eimor Santos contributed to this report.