TIMELINE: China’s vessels swarming Julian Felipe Reef, West PH Sea

Tensions in the West Philippine Sea have flared in recent weeks as the Philippines pushed anew to publicly call out China’s aggressive behavior in the area, with other countries following suit. 

The growing row was prompted by Chinese vessels found swarming Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) and other maritime features in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone starting in March, with their presence continuing into April. 

The ships, which were earlier moored in the hundreds, had been massed up at Julian Felipe Reef for weeks, taking shelter from what China had claimed were "rough sea conditions," though weather in the area had been clear. 

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said the Chinese vessels were manned by Beijing’s maritime militia. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) asserted their illegal presence in the water way was a violation of Philippine sovereignty. The task force had also underscored China’s vessels might be causing “irreparable damage” to the marine environment. 

Beyond this, experts warned the swarming of China’s vessels in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, was part of its strategy to assert control over the seascape and push other countries’ vessels out of their own waters. 

How did the situation come to this? 

March 20, 2021

The NTF-WPS – usually a quiet body – voices concern after it spotted around 220 Chinese vessels, believed to be Chinese maritime militia, swarming Julian Felipe Reef, about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan. 

The task force says it received verified reports from the Philippine Coast Guard that the Chinese fishing vessels were first sighted near the reef on March 7. 

The NTF-WPS says the ships, moored in line formation, are "believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel.” It points out that the vessels appear to show no signs of "actual fishing activities," and have been spotted with lights turned on at night despite clear weather.

"The NTF-WPS notes this circumstance as a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation," the task force says in a rare statement.

March 21, 2021

The Philippines files a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of hundreds of its vessels near Julian Felipe Reef. 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr says the protest has been filed following a recommendation from National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana likewise slams the presence of China’s vessels, saying it is "a clear provocative action of militarizing the area."

"These are territories well within Philippine exclusive economic zone and continental shelf where Filipinos have the sole right to resources under international law and the 2016 arbitral ruling," Lorenzana says.

The defense chief calls on China to immediately recall its ships in Philippine waters. 

March 22, 2021

China denies allegations that vessels spotted in Julian Felipe Reef are manned by maritime militia, denouncing the claim as an “unnecessary irritation.”

“There is no Chinese maritime militia as alleged,” its embassy in Manila says.

In an official statement, the Chinese embassy describes the massing of 220 ships near Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun reef) as a “normal practice” of fishing vessels to take shelter due to “rough sea conditions.” 

“Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner,” a spokesperson for the embassy says.

Meanwhile, former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario calls on the Duterte government to consider summoning Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian over the presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef. 

On March 22, the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command also dispatches a fixed wing aircraft to conduct maritime patrols over Julian Felipe Reef to further validate the reports from the Philippine Coast Guard that Chinese militia vessels have been spotted in the area.  

March 23, 2021

After the DFA has filed a diplomatic protest gain China, AFP Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana says the military is opposed to any incursion in Philippine waters but so far remains undecided about “the best course of action” to take on the issue. 

“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,” he says. 

The AFP confirms that at least 183 vessels believed to be Chinese maritime militia continue to surround Julian Felipe Reef. 

The United States sounds off on the issue and backs the Philippines, as it voices concern over the presence of Beijing’s maritime militia in the reef.

“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” a spokesperson of the US embassy says. 

Japan likewise expresses concern, saying it “strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions” in the area. 

In a press briefing, Malacañang says President Rodrigo Duterte plans to speak with Huang about the presence of over 200 vessels spotted near Julian Felipe Reef. 

"Ang sabi niya, wala namang hindi napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan," Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque says. (He said, there are no issues that friends cannot discuss.)

The Philippines doubles down on its demand for China to withdraw its vessels, calling the continued deployment a "blatant" infringement of Philippine sovereignty. 

March 24, 2021

Why worry about Chinese vessels spotted near Julian Felipe Reef? Retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio warns that the continued presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels could be a “prelude" to China's occupation of another maritime feature in the West Philippine Sea. 

In an interview on ANC’s Headstart, Carpio says he is “particularly worried” that China – by parking hundreds of ships believed to be manned by its maritime militia at the Julian Felipe Reef – is using the same strategy it used in occupying Mischief Reef in 1995. 

Australia adds it voice to the issue and expresses concern over “destabilizing actions” that could raise tensions in the highly volatile South China Sea. 

March 25, 2021

The AFP increases its presence in the West Philippine Sea by deploying more naval vessels to the area. 

Meanwhile, Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are the latest to express concern over flaring tensions in the South China Sea, adding their weight to increasing pressure over China's recent actions in the maritime area. 

China hits back and accuses diplomats representing these countries in the Philippines of  making "irresponsible comments" and stating "wrong facts."

On Twitter, Locsin calls out the Chinese embassy for supposedly misunderstanding his earlier statement to the DFA to "fire at will" the Philippines' protest against China "as an order to fire guns at Chinese boats."

"I am not responsible for totalitarian distortions of plain English. Correct it yourself," he says.

In a meeting with Ambassador Huang, President Duterte raises the presence of over 200 Chinese ships near Julian Felipe Reef and reiterates the 2016 Hague ruling, a legal victory for the Philippines that struck down the 9-dash line claim that China had used to claim almost the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. 

Malacañang says Huang responded by repeating earlier statements China had made on the issue. 

March 28, 2021

Lorenzana vows to send more vessels of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard to the West Philippine Sea, as Chinese ships refuse to leave the vicinity of Julian Felipe Reef. 

“We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines. There will be an increased presence of the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard ships to conduct sovereignty patrols and protect our fishermen in the West Philippine Sea,” he says. 

March 30, 2021

In an interview on CNN Philippines’ The Source, Lorenzana says the Philippines will not station navy ships in the Julian Felipe Reef to avoid provoking the Chinese presence in the area. Instead, a coast guard vessel will be sent in the meantime. 

Lorenzana says the NTF-WPS has suggested stationing a navy ship in the reef to mark the Philippines’ sovereignty in the area, but that officials are still studying that options. There is “no decision” yet, he says.

The Philippine will also deploy the ships of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to protect Filipino fishermen that may be staying in Julian Felipe Reef, he adds. 

March 31, 2021

The NTF-WPS reports that, a month since Chinese vessels have been first spotted in Julian Felipe Reef, the ships are now spread out over various reefs in the West Philippine Sea. 

The task force says it has spotted 44 ships “moored, anchored, and stationary” in Julian Felipe Reef,  115 Chinese vessels in Kenna (Chigua) Reef, and 45 vessels in Pag-asa (Thitu) Islands. Along with these, 50 Chinese ships are also reportedly dispersed along Panganiban (Mischief), Kagitingan (Fiery), and Zamora (Subi) Reefs – all within the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan.

Also seen are 4 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels in Panganiban Reef, near China's militarized manmade islands.

All in all, the NTF-WPS says on March 31 that there are 258 Chinese ships in Philippine waters as of March 29. The task force stands by its statement that the vessels are part of China’s maritime militia.

Following reports of Chinese vessels still present in the Philippines’ waters, Del Rosario urges the Duterte government to reconsider conducting joint patrols with the US in the West Philippine Sea as a way to “confront the bullying tactics” of China in the area. 

Before stepping down, the Philippines' former top diplomat said that he, along with other officials, had traveled to Washington DC, where they spoke with then-deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken on the matter. Blinken is now the US Secretary of State. 

"We must show the world, and especially China, that we are [a] country that will fight for our rights and able to enforce our laws in our own EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” he says. 

April 1, 2021

Esperon and White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan discuss their shared concerns over Chinese activities in the South China Sea in a call on March 31, the White House says on April 1. 

During the call, Sullivan reiterates to Esperon that the two countries' Mutual Defense Treaty – which sees both sides commit to defend one another in case of an attack – covers the South China Sea. Both sides also agree to coordinate closely in responding to challenges in the area.

April 3, 2021

On April 3, Lorenzana reiterates the Philippines’ demand for Chinese ships to leave Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea since they have no more reason to "take shelter" amid good weather.

“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there. These vessels should be on their way out. Umalis na kayo diyan (Leave now),” he says. 

The AFP echoes Lorenzana and voices “serious concern" over the continued presence of the ships in Julian Felipe Reef, which it described as an "integral part of Pagkakaisa (Unity) Banks."

China hits back, calling Lorenzana’s statement “unprofessional.

"China is committed to safeguarding peace and stability in the waters and we hope that authorities concerned would make constructive efforts and avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions," a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Manila says in an official statement. 

China sticks to its message that “it is completely normal” for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during “rough sea conditions.” It also insists that the Julian Felipe reef, which it calls Niu'e Jiao, "is part of China's Nansha Islands" and that the waters around it "has been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years."

The Philippine government earlier launched a strong protest over China's naming of districts and maritime features in the West Philippine Sea. 

April 4, 2021

The word war between Lorenzana and China’s embassy continues.

In a new statement, Lorenzana calls out China for shunning international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), by continuing to claim the West Philippine Sea despite the Philippines landmark legal victory against the regional giant in 2016. 

With the 2016 Hague ruling, Lorenzana points out, the Philippines’ claims “stand on solid ground, while China’s do not.”

“The utter disregard by the Chinese embassy in Manila of international law especially the UNCLOS to which China is a party is appalling. Its 9-dash line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal,” he says. 

April 5, 2021

Philippine senators back Lorenzana in his demand for China’s vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef. 

The DFA lambasts the Chinese embassy in Manila for entangling itself in a rare verbal war with Lorenzana. 

“The Department of Foreign Affairs strongly denounces the embassy’s attempt to impugn the Secretary of National Defense – a Cabinet Official of the Republic of the Philippines – by calling his statement 'unprofessional.' Chinese embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government, and as guests must at all times observe protocol and accord respect to Philippine government officials,” the DFA says. 

In an eight-point statement, the Philippines calls out China’s statement for containing falsehoods and says its tolerance of the ships’ presence in the West Philippine Sea likewise demonstrates a “lack of good faith” on Beijing’s part in ongoing negations on a South China Sea code of conduct. 

The DFA warns the Philippine will file daily diplomatic protests against Beijing as long as the latter's vessels remain in the Philippine waters. 

Duterte’s legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, chimes in and says China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea are straining ties between Manila and Beijing, and could lead to "unwanted hostilities.”

April 7, 2021

The Philippines starts lodging daily diplomatic protests against China over the lingering presence of its ships in the West Philippine Sea. 

April 8, 2021

Alumni of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) rally behind Lorenzana and slam the continued presence of Chinese ships at Julian Felipe Reef as a display of China's "hypocrisy" and "bad faith."

On April 8, an ABS-CBN news team is chased by Chinese ships armed with heavy weapons in the West Philippine Sea. ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano and her news team ride a motor boat to Ayungin Shoal as part of efforts to report on the impact of China’s action on Filipino fishermen.

Zambrano reports that even when their boat decided to return to Palawan to avoid possible danger, "we were chased for about an hour by this white China Coast Guard ship."

She added in Filipino: “After that, two smaller but faster ships chased us. And when we checked, Kabayan, we saw that the ships were Type 022 Houbei fast attack craft with two mounted missiles."

April 9, 2021

In a phone call on the Philippines’ Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor), Locsin and Blinken tackle Manila and Washington’s shared concerns about Chinese militia vessels in South China Sea.

Blinken reaffirms that the Philippines and the US’ Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the South China Sea.

The Department of National Defense orders the AFP to conduct a fact-finding investigation into the incident involving an ABS-CBN news team chased away by armed Chinese vessels in Philippine waters. 

We are concerned for the safety of anyone – unarmed civilians – at sea. As such, we view the report with concern,” says DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong. 

April 13, 2021

On April 13, the DFA says Huang, China’s envoy to the Philippines, has been summoned over the continued presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea. It is a first for Huang since assuming his role as Beijing’s envoy to the Philippines in December 2019. 

The DFA says that in the April 12 meeting with Huang, the Philippines expressed its “utmost displeasure” over the continuing presence of Chinese ships around Julian Felipe Reef and other maritime zones in Philippine waters. 

The Philippines also raises the landmark 2016 Hague ruling that struck down China’s historical claims in the West Philippine Sea, and repeats its demand for China to withdraw its vessels from the area. 

Locsin says the incursions of Chinese ships in West Philippine Sea “achieve nothing” in law and are a “distraction” from the “beneficial potential of the good relations” China and the Philippines have seen under Duterte. 

Meanwhile, the NTF-WPS, coast guard, and BFAR send more ships to the area. 

April 14, 2021

The Philippines files another diplomatic protest after the NTF-WPS finds hundreds Chinese ships still lingering in the West Philippine Sea, despite repeated demands to withdraw from the area. 

The task force says an estimated 261 Chinese vessels are still seen dispersed throughout the West Philippine Sea during its latest sovereignty patrols last April 11. They include the following: 

  • 2 Houbei class missile warships at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef
  • 1 Corvette class warship at Kagitingan (Fiery) Reef
  • 1 PLAN tugboat at Zamora (Subi) Reef 
  • 2 PLAN, 3 CCG (Chinese Coast Guard) at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal)
  • 2 CCG vessels in the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island
  • 136 at Burgos (Gaven) Reef
  • 9 at Julian Felipe Reef
  • 65 at Chigua (McKennan) Reef
  • 6 at Panganiban Reef
  • 3 at Zamora Reef
  • 4 at the Pag-asa (Thitu) Islands,
  • 1 at Likas (West York) Island
  • 5 at Kota (Loaita) Island
  • 11 at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal
  • 10 at Bajo de Masinloc

The NTF-WPS also warns of environmental concerns, saying the ships found around the Union Banks and Pag-asa Islands are about 60 meters in length and that it is estimated each ship can catch at least 1 ton of fish. 

Put together, the task force says, “a conservative total of 240,000 kilos of fish [are] illegally taken from Philippine waters every single day that the massed Chinese fishing vessels remain in the West Philippine Sea.” 

Meanwhile, Philippine business groups join the government's call on China to withdraw its vessels from Julian Felipe Reef and urge Beijing to refrain from becoming an "imperial power."

April 16, 2021

Carpio calls out Duterte's “disturbing” silence on the latest swarming of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea and warns it could be sending “mixed signals” to Beijing. 

“The President has to make a stand, make a public stand, make a personal statement. He cannot hide behind his alter egos because China will not listen to this alter egos, will probably only look at him for the correct signals. And right now, the President is not sending the right signals,” Carpio tells Rappler editor at large Marites Vitug in an interview.

April 19, 2021

Duterte finally makes a public statement on Chinese ships swarming Philippine waters, but rather than joining his defense and foreign secretaries in calling out Beijing, the Chief Executive repeats his old arguments against provoking the regional giant. 

In a televised address, Duterte repeats a debunked claim that asserting the Philippines’ rights in the area will only lead to war with China and that China, not the Philippines, is "in possession" of the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte, however, spells out a red line in saying he will be assertive if China starts drilling for oil or other mineral resources in the West Philippine Sea.

"I will really not leave. If I have a ship there now, Coast Guard, I will not leave.... If they are driven away, I will tell them to stay put," he says in a mix of English and Filipino.

April 22, 2021

Sobejana says the AFP is “entertaining” the idea of putting up structures in the West Philippine Sea, similar to what China has done in the waters.

“It was agreed way back that no country would construct in the area. But China broke that agreement. That’s why we should start our own construction now. And again, that is subject to consideration of NTF-WPS,” he says in Filipino. 

Experts, however, warn this could provide China with an excuse to engage in retaliatory actions of building more structures in Philippine waters.

“They can build them faster, bigger, and better, so we will not be able to win a race to build new structures,” says maritime lawyer Jay Batongbacal. 

What could be more productive, Batongbacal says, is a temporary ban on any illicit activities, including construction. 

April 24, 2021

The European Union calls out China's actions in the South China Sea, underscoring that the recent large presence of its vessels in Julian Felipe Reef "endanger peace and stability in the region."

"The EU reiterates its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order. We urge all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, including its dispute settlement mechanisms," a spokesperson says, recalling the 2016 Hague ruling.

April 26, 2021

Eleven senators file a resolution to “condemn in the strongest possible terms the illegal activities” of China in the West Philippine Sea. If adopted by the Senate, the document will merely express the “sense” of the chamber. 

In a press briefing, China doubles down on its claims in the West Philippine Sea and calls on the the Philippines to stop its drills in the waterway.

“We urge the relevant side to respect China's sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin says in a press conference. 

April 28, 2021

Locsin orders another diplomatic protest filed against China over Wang’s remarks. The protest is separate from the daily protests that have been lodged by the DFA since April 5. 

The NTF-WPS says three CCG vessels are still spotted in Bajo de Masinloc, one more in waters in the municipality of Kalayaan, and one in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

In a separate statement, the DND says “China has no business telling the Philippines what we can and cannot do within our own waters." 

The defense department raises the 2016 arbitral award that struck down China’s 9-dash line claim over virtually the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. “It is they who are encroaching and should desist and leave,” says the DND. – 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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