MANILA – The Western Command (Wescom) expressed deep concern on Saturday regarding the increased presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels and a significant case of coral harvesting at Rozul (Iroquois) Reef. This reef is situated within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

During a weekly news forum held in Quezon City, Vice Admiral Albert Carlos, the commander of Wescom, reported a troubling “resurgence” of swarming incidents in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). He pointed out that as of September 15, approximately 40 Chinese fishing vessels (CFVs) were spotted near Rozul Reef, located south of Recto Bank. This figure represents an increase compared to the 33 vessels seen on August 24 and the 24 observed on September 7.

Swarming activities were also detected at Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, where five CFVs were observed, and at Baragatan (Nares) Bank, with two CFVs, according to a Wescom news release on September 14.

Carlos assured that the Philippine Navy (PN) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessels were also present in the area, stating, “But the good news is we also have our presence there.” He emphasized that efforts were underway to address the issue of swarming.

Coral harvesting came into focus as Carlos noted that PN divers conducted an “underwater survey” in July within the swarming area and reported the absence of corals at Rozul Reef. The military is collaborating with scientists and experts to assess the area more comprehensively. Their aim is to confirm the divers’ findings regarding recent extensive coral harvesting.

Carlos explained, “We are not drawing any conclusions at this time. It’s a work in progress, but we want to report on the situation of coral harvesting in the area where these vessels were seen loitering and swarming.”

Despite recent incidents, Carlos stressed the government’s commitment to “maintain peace and prevent miscalculations” in the WPS. He assured an increased military presence in Philippine waters.

Carlos emphasized, “The presence of Chinese vessels is already alarming because we hold sovereign rights in our exclusive economic zone. Regarding the coral harvesting issue, it’s currently based on suspicion. We are not asserting that they are harvesting our corals, but we suspect that someone is. This would constitute a violation of our sovereign rights. We are the sole entities entitled to exploit resources in the West Philippine Sea.”

He added, “For the Western Command, this is concerning because it might give the impression that we are neglecting our duty to protect our territory and the resources of our exclusive economic zone. Therefore, we are redoubling our efforts by increasing our presence in the region. It’s crucial that we enhance our presence there.”

Regarding joint patrols, Carlos mentioned that the government is carefully considering offers from other nations to conduct joint patrols alongside Philippine forces. Presently, the military conducts unilateral maritime patrols in the WPS, which are jointly carried out with the Philippine Coast Guard and the BFAR, without foreign involvement.

Carlos noted, “We are in discussions with any parties willing to assist us, those who share our goal of establishing a rules-based international order. We are evaluating all offers that are on the table.” He emphasized that while the Philippines appreciates other nations’ willingness to assist, there has been no directive to engage in joint patrols with foreign nations.