The Philippines has started investigating reports that Chinese vessels, reported by Beijing last month as seeking shelter at the Julian Felipe Reef because of bad weather – clear skies despite — chased a Filipino boat carrying fishermen and an ABS-CBN News crew in the West Philippine Sea.
This developed amid tensions between Beijing and Manila over lingering Chinese presence in the area.
In a weekend statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said if the reports were confirmed, it would raise the matter with China, which appears to have insulted the competence of Filipino weather officials with the argument the initially more than 200 ships were merely seeking some shield from bad weather.
To borrow Lewis Carroll’s phrase in 1865, when he introduced Alice to his audience as a girl with a highly imaginative mind and a love for creativity, the scenario at the Julian Felipe Reef is “getting curiouser and curiouser.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, bristling at the rim of his anger, had said in a statement that there were still 44 of the foreign vessels at the reef, putting on his Twitter account, “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. “
According to Lorenzana, China’s ambassador Huang Xilian had “a lot of explaining to do” and reiterated Manila’s demand on Beijing to pull the ships, in line formation yet when they were spotted on March 7, out of “our sovereign territories and abide by international law.”
The Chinese Embassy in a tweet last week said the vessels were fishing boats, not Chinese maritime militia ships, seeking shelter at the reef. In a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, Huang gave the same explanation.
Here, we have broken echoes of diplomatic double-dealing.
Julian Felipe Reef, 324 kms from the southern tip of Palawan province, is a boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and reefs (Union Reefs) physically and geographically within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone.
The reef is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, which the NTF-WPS said the Philippines owns and has “exclusive right to use resources, including fish, oil and natural gas.”
Adding emphasis to Lorenzana’s statement, the Armed Forces of the Philippines expressed “serious concern” over Chinese “incursions” into the country’s EEZ and said it was committed to constantly monitor the West Philippine Sea through air and maritime “sovereignty patrols.”
We are persuaded by the concern of the government’s National Task Force West Philippine Sea “due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment and the risks to safety of navigation.”
The task force has argued putatively that there was no reason for the Chinese vessels to mass at the reef to seek shelter because there was clear weather at the time. And even today.
Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef and showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night time, according to the task force.
“In consonance with the Philippine commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Government shall continue to peacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives on environmental protection, food security and freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea as part of its overall national security policy,” it said.
Asked if a diplomatic protest would be filed, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the DFA will do so upon the recommendation of the military.
In another statement, journalism professors at the University of the Philippines said China’s action against the Filipino vessel was against international law, calling on the DFA to file a fresh protest.
“Whether or not China was aware of the presence of the ABS-CBN crew on coverage, the unprovoked threat of the use of force against an unarmed civilian vessel is prohibited under the United Nations Charter and customary international law,” read a statement issued Saturday.
“We call on the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest condemning in no uncertain terms the unprovoked threatening naval military maneuver made by the PLA Navy of China against a Philippine civilian vessel within the Philippine EEZ and while said Philippine vessel was already headed for Palawan,” they said.
They urged media organizations to “provide full, contextualized coverage of the massive military buildup in the West Philippine Sea as part of our first duty as journalists to ‘ be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information’ — a duty that transcends borders and meridian boundaries.”
We strongly share the professors’ view.