PUERTO PRINCESA CITY — “We are conducting routine maritime patrol.”
A Philippine military aircraft flies over the West Philippine Sea for aerial patrol Tuesday, 27 March. The Chinese fleet radioes over to the aircraft to “leave immediately” as it flies over the Julian Felipe Reef.
The Chinese fleet assert its claim over the reef:
You are approaching a Chinese reef. To avoid any move that may cause misunderstanding, please leave immediately.
That aerial patrol confirms 200 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be militia at the very beginning, are still there at the Julian Felipe Reef.
The pilot in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) military aircraft radioes back:
This is Philippine government aircraft. We are conducting routine maritime patrol over Philippine EEZ (exclusive economic zone), and we are proceeding based on our planned route.
Ships were dispersed but not totally gone
Meanwhile, according to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) there are at least 44 Chinese maritime militia vessels that remain moored at Julian Felipe Reef as of 29 March while the rest have been dispersed.
The ships that remain are scattered in other areas in the Kalayaan Island Group, a municipality under the jurisdiction of Palawan.
The NTF-WPS reports finding:
- 115 militia ships locatad near Chigua (Kennan) Reef
- 45 vessels near the Pag-asa (Thitu) Island
- 50 vessels dispersed near Panganiban (Mischief), Kagitingan (Fiery), and Zamora (Subi) Reefs
- 4 vessels from the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy near Panganiban Reef, where satellite images show concrete installations
A boomerang-shaped, shallow coral region, the Julian Felipe Reef lies some 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the south of Palawan. It lies within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. The country can use and conserve all the natural resources in the area, such as fish, oil, or natural gas in the zone.
Not just fishing vessels anymore
The NTF-WPS stands by its position that the ships spotted in the area are maritime militia, “not just fishing vessels taking shelter,” in opposition to claims stated by the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
“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,” says the NTF-WPS.
The task force does not discount the possibility that the Chinese ships may be doing illicit activities at night and may cause irreparable damage to the marine environment in the area.
“Their swarming also poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ,” the NTF-WPS points out.
Chiara Zambrano tweets a recent aerial patrol.
This is what the Armed Forces of the Philippines sees and hears each tine they conduct maritime patrols over the West Philippine Sea. Our aircraft was challenged at least five times yesterday. @ABSCBNNews pic.twitter.com/2g6fH2LinB
— Chiara Zambrano (@chiarazambrano) March 31, 2021
Diplomatic protest and international support
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr has filed a diplomatic protest following the report on the presence of Chinese ships in Julian Felipe Reef. The Armed Forces of the Philippines have since conducted three rounds of routine aerial and maritime sovereignty patrol missions in the area.
Other nations as the United States, the European Union, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand express support for the Philippines, calling on China to adhere to rules-based order consistent with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. (JSM/JuanManila)
Featured image: Satellite imagery, taken on 23 March 2021, shows Chinese vessels moored at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea, 175 nautical miles (320 kilometers) off west of Bataraza in the south of Palawan . Satellite image handout Maxar Technologies