Around 240 Chinese maritime militia vessels still in Philippine waters, West PH Sea task force says

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 14) – Around 240 Chinese maritime militia vessels are still roaming in Philippine waters, according to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea. The vessels were spotted around Pagkakaisa Banks and Pag-asa Islands, areas within the country's exclusive economic zone.

"The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea, and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the EEZ," the task force said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command patrolled the area on Sunday and said it saw about 136 Chinese maritime militia vessels at Burgos Reef.

Another 65 vessels were spotted at Chigua Reef, 11 at Ayungin Shoal, nine at Julian Felipe Reef, six at Panganiban Reef, five at Kota Island, four at Pag-Asa Islands, and one at Likas Island. These areas fall within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

The NTF-WPS said the vessels are about 60 meters in length and can each carry an estimated 240,000 kilos of fish.

The Philippine Coast Guard also conducted its own patrol where it saw Chinese poachers collecting giant clams in the vicinity of Pag-asa Islands.

"This act is a blatant violation of Philippine fisheries and wildlife laws, and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora," the NTF-WPS said.

The PCG also spotted some People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels in the disputed areas. Two Houbei class missile warships were found at Panganiban Reef, while one Corvette class warship was seen at Kagitingan Reef and one Navy Tugboat was spotted at Zamora Reef.

Two more Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels were seen in the waters off Pag-asa Islands. At Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal, the AFP reported two PLAN, three CCG, and ten Chinese maritime militia vessels swarming the area.

"All these warships of the PLA Navy contribute to the militarization of the area," the NTF-WPS added.

An arbitral tribunal in 2016 ruled that China's island-building activities on these reefs and four others violate 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 rejects the ruling, which also recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights to parts of its EEZ which Beijing contests. The East Asian giant claims almost the entire South China Sea, including areas Manila claims as the West Philippine Sea.

The Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday said it has summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over the prolonged presence of Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef. It also reiterated its demand for the immediate departure of other Chinese vessels in other maritime zones of the Philippines.