Philippines demands withdrawal of Chinese ships from West PH Sea

The Philippines doubled down on its demand for China to withdraw its fishing vessels massed near a reef in the West Philippine Sea, calling the continued deployment a "blatant" infringement of Philippine sovereignty. 

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) reiterated in an official statement on Tuesday, March 23, that Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef), located west of Palawan, is in the Kalayaan Island Group that lies in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. 

"The Philippines demands that China promptly withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets in the vicinity and adjacent features in the Kalayaan Island Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea, and to direct its fishing vessels to desist from environmentally destructive activities," the DFA said. 

It continued, "We reiterate that the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction."

The Philippines' fresh call for China to withdraw its vessels came after it filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing on Sunday, March 21. As of Tuesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said at least 183 Chinese vessels continued to surround Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines' National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea earlier said it believed the vessels massed near Julian Felipe Reef were manned by Chinese maritime militia. It added that the ships appeared to show no signs of "actual fishing activities" and had been spotted with lights turned on at night despite clear weather. 

China earlier denied allegations that maritime militia manned the 220 vessels initially spotted on March 7 and denounced the Philippines' initial statements on the issue as an "unnecessary irritation."

On Tuesday, the DFA underscored that China's "continuing infringement and tolerance" for its vessels' activities in Philippine waters despite "persistent and resolute protests" from the Philippines were contrary to China's commitments under international law.

The Philippines urged China to honor its commitments under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as well as the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, which both countries were parties to. 

It also urged China to respect and abide by the 2016 Hague ruling that the Philippines won against China, reiterating it was "final and binding."

The Philippines' latest statement also came on the same day the United States said it backed the Philippines, and shared concern over the presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea. 

"We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia," the US said. 

Malacañang said President Rodrigo Duterte plans to bring up the massing of Chinese ships near Julian Felipe Reef with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian.

Since 2020, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr has doubled down on the Philippines' position in the West Philippine Sea, as he and the President cited the historic 2016 Hague ruling as "non-negotiable" and filed several protests against Beijing's aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea.

To date, the DFA said 60 diplomatic notes had been filed against China, 45 of which were under Locsin's term. It added that China has so far only addressed issues raised in 48 diplomatic notes. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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