No confrontation marked the approach of a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship and another vessel owned by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) towards the Chinese militia vessels swarming at the Julian Felipe Reef on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Commodore Armand Balilo, the PCG spokesperson, gave “no exact figures on the number of (Chinese) vessels” still present in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), a territory being contested by China.
Photographs provided by the PCG to the public, however, showed six Chinese maritime vessels that did not move despite the close approach of the PCG’s BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409) that was commissioned in 2018 for environmental and humanitarian missions as well for maritime security and patrol.
Another Philippine ship from the BFAR was accompanied by two smaller boats of the PCG. They also came close to the Chinese vessels.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) earlier expressed concern over a PCG report that about 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by their maritime militia, have been sighted in line formation at the Philippine-owned reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, on 7 March.
The reef is located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has repeatedly demanded the immediate departure of the remaining 44 Chinese vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef. The Chinese Embassy in Manila called Lorenzana’s remark “unprofessional” as it maintained its “historical claim” over the feature that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) expressed support over the DND’s demand for the remaining Chinese ships’ withdrawal.
On Wednesday, DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. confirmed that two diplomatic protests have been lodged after the Chinese government insisted that it will not withdraw its vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef and other Philippine maritime zones.
Sovereignty patrols conducted on 11 April by the Armed Forces Western Command recorded Chinese Maritime Militia vessels in the territorial waters of the Municipality of Kalayaan in Province of Palawan and the EEZ.
Around 136 ships were seen in Burgos Reef, 9 in Julian Felipe Reef, 65 in Chigua Reef, 6 in Panganiban Reef, 3 in Zamora Reef, 4 in Pag-asa Islands, 1 in Likas Island, 5 in Kota Island and 11 in Ayungin Shoal, marking the largest gathering of Chinese vessels in the area.
Despite confirmation by several foreign military agencies, China denies having a militia manning these “blue ships” that are actually a de facto navy force. These 187,000 boats are maintained by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA claims these are fishing vessels.
These “Little Blue Men”, as members of the militia are called, have built military facilities in Philippine territories Subi and Mischief reefs, however, despite China’s earlier claim that it has no plan to militarize the sea lanes.
Aside from the PCG and BFAR ships, other Philippine maritime vessels are present but farther from the area.
The BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS-36) — formerly securing the Philippines-Indonesia border, was pulled out from the Eastern Mindanao area and redeployed to Palawan. It is an aging ship originally called HMS Plover (P240) during her service with the Hong Kong Squadron of the Royal Navy (1983-1984). Its weapons and systems were upgraded in August 2019.
Other Navy ships now in Palawan are:
The BRP Dagupan City (LS-551) — commissioned in the early 1990s and used in military and peacetime operations as an amphibious transport. It is fairly armed for defensive purposes and carries four 7.62mm general-purpose machine guns at the front side decks, and two Oerlikon 20 mm cannons.
The BRP Magat Salamat (PS-20) was acquired by the Philippine Navy in April 1976. Along with other ex-World War II veteran ships of the Philippine Navy, she is considered as one of the oldest active fighting ships in the world today.
BRP Miguel Malvar (PS-19), originally built as USS Brattleboro PCE(R)-852, a PCE(R)-848-class rescue patrol craft escort for the United States Navy during World War II and acquired by the Philippine Navy in April 1976 was also deployed.
Despite these ships’ presence, Malacañang credited the ease in the WPS situation to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “privately” dealing with the Chinese government in addressing the issue.
“Whatever the President is doing, let us allow him to do it in a private manner,” presidential spokesman Secretary Harry Roque said in a news conference.
Roque said the issue can be resolved through diplomacy.
Several lawmakers and civil groups criticized Duterte over his perceived silence on the presence of the Chinese vessels in the Philippine territories despite the strongly-worded statements and diplomatic protests from his defense and foreign affairs officials.
Roque, however, said the President’s diplomatic efforts do not have to be made in public, adding that it was an “exception to freedom of information.”
He also took pride that the Philippines moved from a “position of antagonism with China to a position of friendship” under the Duterte administration.
“The President’s diplomatic initiatives do not need to be announced in public. It is covered by exception since he should make the right decision no matter what,” he said.
Earlier in the day, retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said China would still believe it has the President as an ally as he has yet to publicize his stance on the matter.
“The President must speak. He must stand up himself because if his subordinates do the talking, China will not listen because China will listen only to the leader of the nation. If the President is silent, then China will continue,” Carpio told ANC in an interview.
“They will feel the heat because they will lose a friend if the President will speak,” he added.
The retired magistrate, who was part of the team that argued for the Philippines’ maritime rights in the WPS before a Hague-based arbitration court, underscored that the presence of Chinese ships within the country’s territory is a “very important national issue” that should not be played down.
Individuals from various fields have also signed a petition calling for the resignation of President Duterte over his supposed “subservience” to China, as well as his administration’s pandemic response.
At press time, over 2,000 individuals signed the petition which was posted on change.org.
Among them were academicians, civic leaders, doctors, lawyers, religious groups, and businessmen. The Palace has yet to comment as of this writing.
“Duterte’s subservience to China threatens to tie our vaccination program to China’s expansionist agenda in the West Philippine Sea,” the petition read.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is getting worse. We are suffering our worst economic crisis in decades. And the aggressive encroachment of China on Philippine territory and maritime rights is unfolding as we speak,” it added.
Days ago, opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said Malacañang “behaved largely like a doormat to China,” adding that the President showed no sign of balancing the country’s interests or altering his pivot to Beijing with just a year left before his term ends.
She also condemned what she called a “duplicitous strategy” from China by providing vaccines, potentially in exchange for the Philippines’ maritime resources.
Eight business organizations, in a joint statement Wednesday, have expressed support for calls made to China to pull out its vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded that the vessels leave the West Philippine Sea, saying he was “no fool” and that there was “no other reason” for the Chinese to stay there when the weather was clear.
Meanwhile, the Philippines is facing a potential shortage in fish supply as “240,000 kilos of fish (are) illegally taken from Philippine waters every single day that the massed Chinese fishing vessels remain in the WPS,” the NTF-WPS disclosed.
Each of the Chinese ships could catch at least 1 ton of fish per day.
Grassroots environmental group the Homonhon Environmental Rescue Organization (HERO) echoed the NTF-WPS report after an earlier warning that the country’s earth materials were used in reclamation and infrastructure projects of China in the disputed Spratlys Islands.
“This is worse than an invasion. Even our fisher folks no longer have anything to eat,” HERO president Villardo “Billy” C. Abueme said. (With Raffy Ayeng, Tina Maralit, Sundy Locus and Alvin Murcia)