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The Philippines remained undecided on Tuesday, March 23, about “the best course of action” two weeks after its coast guard reported around 220 Chinese ships near Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea.
While the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) already filed a diplomatic protest on Monday, March 22, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it is still assessing the situation alongside the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).
Formed in 2016 by the Aquino administration, the NTF-WPS is a body composed of different agencies such as the DFA and AFP, and chaired by the national security adviser, to recommend actions to the President concerning the West Philippine Sea.
“Mandate namin ‘yung to secure our territory so we really oppose any act of incursion sa ating territorial waters ano, including our exclusive economic zone. But on the other hand, ‘yung NTF-WPS naman takes into consideration other means. So jointly i-assess namin and we will decide what is the best course of action na pwedeng gawin du’n sa area,” said AFP Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana in a phone interview on Tuesday.
(Our mandate is to secure our territory so we really oppose any act of incursion in our territorial waters, including our exclusive economic zone. But on the other hand, the NTF-WPS takes into consideration other means. So we will jointly assess and decide what is the best course of action to take for the area.)
The AFP confirmed on Tuesday that at least 183 vessels believed to be Chinese maritime militia continue to surround Julian Felipe Reef, 175 miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan.
“For now, tuloy-tuloy ‘yung ating maritime patrol para ma-check natin kung may dagdag o nagbabawas ‘yung number of vessels d’yan sa West Philippine Sea (For now, we will continue our maritime patrol so we can check whether the number of vessels is rising or decreasing),” the military chief said.
On Monday, the AFP Western Command (Westcom) dispatched a fixed wing aircraft to conduct a maritime patrol over Julian Felipe Reef to further validate the reports from the Philippine Coast Guard that Chinese militia vessels were spotted in the area.
The AFP chief of staff initially confirmed on Monday that the vessels are still there but did not give initial updates on the results of their assessment.
In a statement released on Monday, the Chinese embassy defended the presence of the vessels and denied that Chinese militia are manning the ships. It added that it is “normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels” to take shelter due to “rough sea conditions.”
This contradicted the validated report of the Philippine Coast Guard that the vessels spotted near the reef on March 7 showed no signs of fishing activity.
On Sunday, March 21, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said following the recommendation of National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, he filed a diplomatic protest against China, over the “provocative action of militarizing the area.” – Rappler.com