Almost a month since these were first spotted at the Julian Felipe Reef, over 200 Chinese ships are now spread out over the various reefs in the country, said the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) Wednesday, March 31.
With this development, NTF-WPS reiterated the country's sovereignty over the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and called on Beijing to immediately withdraw the Chinese ships in Philippine waters.
“The Philippines calls on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag. NTF-WPS stands by its observation that these so-called 'fishing' vessels are maritime militia. Their build-up and massing formation from Julian Felipe Reef to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea,” the task force said.
The task force expressed "deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence (swarming) of the Chinese maritime militia, which did not pull out."
"Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China's assertion of its so-called 'indisputable integrated sovereignty' over almost all of the South China Sea," it said.
The statement is one of the strongest issued by the country against the presence of Chinese ships in Philippine territory since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016 and sought to befriend Beijing.
The task force said it spotted 44 ships believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia at Julian Felipe Reef on March 29. The vessels remained “moored, anchored, and stationary” in the area.
Also within the Philippine EEZ, the task force said it monitored 115 Chinese vessels in Kenna (Chigua) Reef and 45 vessels in Pag-asa (Thitu) Islands.
50 Chinese ships were also reportedly dispersed along Panganiban (Mischief), Kagitingan (Fiery), and Zamora (Subi) Reefs – all within the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan.
Also seen were 4 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels in Panganiban Reef, near China's militarized manmade islands.
All in all, there were 258 Chinese ships roaming the Philippine territorial waters as of March 29.
Chinese diplomats have said the boats were sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.
On Monday, March 29, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would not send navy ships at Julian Felipe Reef to avoid provoking China. Instead, it would deploy coast guard vessels and ships from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to the reef.
Earlier, retired justice Antonio Carpio suggested installing a “landing ship” at Julian Felipe Reef like at Ayungin Shoal. In 1999, the BRP Sierra Madre, an old and rusty navy ship, was intentionally parked at Ayungin Shoal to stand the ground of the Philippines in the territorial waters.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said in a message to Rappler that with the phalanx-like or moored formation of the vessels at Julian Felipe Reef, they would be more likely to stay longer in the reef.
“It means that they are staying there for a prolonged period, a few days at least. Lashing the vessels together creates more room for people to move around, so they can interact and share resources more easily,” Batongbacal said. – with reports from Reuters/Rappler.com