MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday, March 2, said Chinese vessels were no longer sighted near the vicinity of a disputed atoll in the South China Sea.
In a statement, the DFA said that it received initial reports from defense officials that Chinese coast guard vessels had been sighted in the Quirino Atoll or Jackson Atoll two weeks ago.
"There are no more sightings of Chinese vessels in the area as of today (Wednesday, March 2)," the DFA said.
It added, "The Department is monitoring reports on the situation on the ground and reiterates its call for China to exercise self-restraint from the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes in the South China Sea and affect peace and stability in the region."
A Reuters report on Wednesday quoted Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr as saying up to 7 Chinese vessels had been deployed to Quirino Atoll off Palawan in the disputed Spratly Islands.
The presence of Chinese ships has prevented Filipino fishermen from accessing waters that lie within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
"This is very alarming, Quirino is on our path when we travel from Palawan to Pagasa. It is halfway and we normally stop there to rest," Bito-onon said in the Reuters report.
He added, "I feel something different. The Chinese are trying to choke us by putting an imaginary checkpoint there. It is a clear violation of our right to travel, impeding freedom of navigation."
A Philippine Star report also said that the ships had been spotted in Quirino Atoll for more than a month.
Unidentified fishermen were reportedly chased away by "gray and white Chinese ships" and prevented from entering their fishing grounds.
China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea despite competing claims from neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In a historic move, Manila raised the dispute to an international tribunal in The Hague for arbitration, citing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China, however, has rejected arbitration proceedings, instead pushing for bilateral talks to resolve the dispute.
To bolster its claim over the South China Sea, China has begun constructing artificial islands and deployed surface-to-air missiles, air strips, and fighter jets on an islet in the disputed waters.