PH files another diplomatic protest over Chinese ships at reef in WPS

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 7) — The Department of Foreign Affairs has fired off another diplomatic protest over the continued presence of Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, marking the start of daily protests until they leave.

“Firing another diplomatic protest,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said over Twitter Wednesday morning. “Every day till the last one’s gone like it should be by now if it is really fishing."

Forty-four Chinese vessels, suspected to be maritime militia, are moored at Julian Felipe Reef, based on latest information from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea. China claims the ships are not militia but fishing vessels taking shelter from bad weather. The DFA in a statement on Monday said these are "blatant falsehoods."

Also known as Whitsun Reef, Julian Felipe is a shallow coral reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan, well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. It is part of Beijing's vast claims in the South China Sea, which includes areas Manila considers the West Philippine Sea.

On March 20, the task force reported spotting over 200 Chinese vessels in the area, a figure that slightly went down to 183 days later. Aerial and maritime patrols last week showed that 44 Chinese vessels are still at Julian Felipe Reef while over 200 others are dispersed in different areas in the West Philippine Sea.

The DFA first filed a diplomatic protest last March 21, followed by a demand for China to “promptly withdraw” its ships. In a strongly worded statement on Monday, the DFA reiterated its call for the Chinese vessels to leave and warned that it will fire off a diplomatic protest "for every day of delay."

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario in a statement said the protest “should convey purposeful direction.”

“One possible action to calibrate subsequent actions is to inform formally the United Nations through the Secretary General,” Del Rosario said.

Del Rosario has been calling on the Duterte government to raise the country’s arbitral win at the United Nations in light of China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea. Locsin has repeatedly rejected his proposal, saying it would mean a relitigation.

In 2016, an arbitral tribunal recognized Manila's sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone that Beijing contests, invalidating the East Asian giant's historic nine-dash line claim to almost the entire South China Sea. 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 rejects the landmark ruling.

Aside from China's presence at Julian Felipe Reef, the military also spotted "illegal" man-made structures around the area, which is part of the Kalayaan Island Group in the disputed Spratlys. Lawmakers and maritime experts say the Philippines should band together with other countries to rally international pressure against China.