maritime security

AFP beefs up presence in Julian Felipe Reef

Jairo Bolledo

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AFP beefs up presence in Julian Felipe Reef

CHINESE VESSELS. Aerial photo of 183 Chinese ships in the Julian Felipe Reef on March 23, 2021.

Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters

The armed forces did not say whether it believes the Chinese military's claim that the ships in the reef were 'fishing boats seeking shelter'

As a fleet of Chinese ships remained in the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea, the armed forces said Thursday, March 25, it was deploying more naval vessels to the area.

In a statement, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Major General Edgard Arevalo said the military ordered the deployment to beef up the country’s presence in the area. 

“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the AFP’s strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground which is the source of their livelihood,” said Arevalo. 

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On Monday, March 22, the military confirmed the presence of at least 183 Chinese ships in the Julian Felipe Reef located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan. 

During his confirmation hearing with the Commission on Appointments on March 24, AFP chief of staff General Cirilito Sobejana said the military met with the Chinese defense attaché to ask about the presence of the Chinese flotilla in the area. 

“AFP representatives engaged on March 4, 2021 their Chinese counterpart in a meeting to discuss the situation obtaining in the WPS as reported. We conveyed the Defense Secretary’s demand for the vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef where 183 vessels were sighted per AFP’s recent aerial patrol,” he said. 

Arevalo also said that the Chinese government maintained that the ships inside the territorial waters of the Philippines were Chinese militia vessels. 

“China’s People’s Liberation Army representatives reiterated their government’s assurance that those ships were not manned by militia and that those were constrained to seek shelter in the area when inclement weather hampered their fishing activity,” Arevalo added. 

The armed forces spokesman did not say whether they believed the claim of the Chinese military. 

Arevalo did not mention the specific date of departure of the Chinese ships in the reef – considering that the fleet has been staying in Philippine territory for over 18 days to take shelter due to “inclement weather.”

AFP beefs up presence in Julian Felipe Reef

On March 24, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian continued to insist that the Chinese vessels were still in the area “taking shelter.” 

“Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in the area for many many years. Now those vessels are taking shelter in that part of the sea. There are no such militia vessels as claimed by some people. Any speculation is not helpful,” Huang said. 

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its territory using it’s so-called 9-dash line principle. This claim was rebuked by the Hague Ruling.

The Hague Ruling of 2016 stated that all islands in the disputed waterway within our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) belonged to the Philippines. It upheld the claims of the Philippines in the disputed territories in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Julian Felipe Reef is part of a bigger group of islands called Union Banks. Union Banks is located in the area being claimed by China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

The Julian Felipe Reef is a rightful territory of the Philippines because it lies within the country’s EEZ.

Retired justice Antonio Carpio warned that the latest activities of Chinese ships in Philippine territory could be a “prelude to occupying” the Julian Felipe Reef. 

“This is not the first time they have done this. At the same time last year, in 2020, they also parked hundreds of their ships in the Julian Felipe Reef. So this is a prelude to – the way I look at it – this is a prelude to occupying Julian Felipe Reef just like they did to Mischief Reef in 1995,” Carpio said in an interview on ANC’s Headstart. –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.