MANILA – A Philippine air patrol on Monday has spotted Chinese militia boats off Julian Felipe Reef (Union Reef) in the West Philippine Sea that is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone EEZ.
“Nandun pa at binibilang namin mabuti (They are still there and we are counting them carefully),” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, confirmed in a media interview.
When asked on the exact number of Chinese vessels, Sobejana said the AFP will probably share later its take on the presence of the Chinese militia boats in the Julian Felipe Reef.
The AFP’s Western Command, which is based in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, deployed a fixed-wing aircraft to fly over the area around 8:40 a.m. on Monday.
“The air patrol was completed around 11:30 a.m.,” AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said.
On Sunday night, Sobejana said the Union reef is within the Philippines’ EEZ “therefore we oppose any move of encroachment of this sovereign territory”.
He said the military continues to monitor the situation “in abidance to international laws and the preservation of the status quo in the West Philippine Sea”.
Sobejana, however, said the AFP would continue to pursue a “peaceful, principled, and rules-based approach” in resolving issues in the WPS.
“We will defer to the decision of the Department of National Defense and Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the matter,” Sobejana said.
Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also expressed concern, calling the presence of 220 Chinese militia boats as a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area”.
“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to upholding our sovereign rights over the WPS,” Lorenzana said in a statement on Sunday.
Following the latest incursion, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Sunday night.
“Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light,” Locsin said in a tweet.
Earlier, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF WPS) expressed concern about a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.
“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 the safety of navigation,” the NTF WPS said.
The reef is a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan. (PNA)