Sattelite image of the Chinese vessels moored at Julian Felipe Reef
The country’s Ambassador to China, Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, has urged the Philippines to be “vigilant” as Chinese ships continued to stay at the Julian Felipe Reef, describing the movement, which we share, as a “matter of concern.”
Sta. Romana told a public press briefing they were closely monitoring the movement of some 200 ships supposedly present in the area due to “bad weather” – at a time when the worst sight could be cloudy skies with no storm at all.
The Chinese claim is dismissed by the US, saying they have been moored there “for several months in ever-increasing numbers, regardless of weather.”
It is important that the Philippines, which pivoted to its giant neighbor during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, monitor and follow China’s next steps.
The Chinese have said they are seeking shelter from bad weather – perhaps they meant cloudy skies and sun – which former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio described as a prelude to occupation..
Earlier last week, Duterte asserted the international court’s 2016 arbitral ruling favoring the Philippines against China’s massive claims in the disputed West Philippine Sea during his meeting with Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian.
The presidential assertion came as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief-of-staff, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, ordered the deployment of additional Philippine Navy ships to bolster the conduct of maritime sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
The National Task Force on the WPS earlier raised the alarm about a Philippine Coast Guard report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.
On July 12, 2016, the special arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines on most of its submissions although it clarified that it would not “… rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory and would not delimit any maritime boundary between the Parties.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte raised the issue when the Chinese envoy visited the President to greet him for his birthday. Duterte turned on March 28.
“The President is not surrendering our sovereignty by not aggressively pursuing the arbitral ruling in our favor rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” Roque had said.
Sta. Romana added: “The lesson here is we have to be vigilant. Vigilance is the price of sovereignty. We should see if this (departure) is implemented. We have to heighten our vigilance.”
While Sta. Romana said the presence of the ships in the area was a “cause of concern,” he maintained that the public “does not have to panic,” saying China had promised to withdraw the ships once the weather improved.
He added: If you could recall, this also happened in 2019. But we don’t have to panic. If we can recall this also happened with Pag-Asa island when Chinese militia swarmed the area. We had a protest and diplomatic exchange. Gradually, the ships became fewer. We should be concerned with but we don’t have to panic.
“We just have to exercise a high degree of vigilance, a high degree of monitoring and see what happens on the ground. I expect that this matter can be resolved with an abundance of diplomacy and given the friendly relations with Philippines and China and their assurance that this is not a permanent situation.”
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. himself already filed a diplomatic protest to have China recall the 220 boats moored in the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef., situated within the West Philippine Sea, the country’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety, and where it is conducting militarization and island-building activities.
We feel buoyant that Canada has joined other nations in calling out China for its recent incursions in the West Philippine Sea, saying the actions of the world’s second largest economy “undermine regional stability.”
“Canada opposes recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including off the coast of the Philippines, that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order,” Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur said in a tweet.
China, on the other hand, lashed back at its critics for coming out with “irresponsible comments” and “using the same scripts.”
“Neither these diplomats understand the basic facts, nor do they have the ability to think and judge independently,” the Chinese Embassy in Manila said on Twitter.
“If the so-called ‘facts’ are false from the beginning, you couldn’t be more wrong to repeat the mistakes. Understand and respect the facts before you make any comments,” the Chinese embassy added.
Earlier this week, the United States, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom also criticized China’s recent action which retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned might be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base as it did to Mischief Reef in 1995.
“The [People’s Republic of China] uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region… We share the concerns of our Philippine allies,” the US Embassy had said in a statement.
“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” it added.
“The South China Sea issues are directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all,” said Japanese Ambassador Kazuhiko Koshikawa, that is why his country “strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions.”
Manila demanded China’s immediate withdrawal from the reef, which is being claimed by Beijing as part of its territory.
From 220 on March 7, about 183 Chinese vessels have remained in the area.
We wonder when the “weather” will permit the Chinese vessels to sail out of the area.