Philippines Military Orders Ships Deployed to South China Sea

2021-03-25
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Philippines Military Orders Ships Deployed to South China Sea Chinese ships are seen around Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea in an image provided by Maxar Technologies, March 23, 2021.
Maxar Technologies via AP

The Philippine military said Thursday it had ordered navy ships deployed to the South China Sea, days after the coast guard reported that hundreds of Chinese boats, believed to be crewed by militia, were seen swarming near a contested reef.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana gave the order to beef up “maritime sovereignty patrols” in an area within the country’s exclusive economic zone, AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement. 

“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the AFP’s strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment, and [to] ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground which is the source of their livelihood,” Arevalo said.

Philippine officials over the weekend reported that around 220 steel-hulled boats had been seen moored near Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, 175 nautical miles off Palawan Island.

On Wednesday, representatives of the Philippine military met with their Chinese counterparts to convey Manila’s demand that the ships leave Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, Arevalo said. 

The Chinese military representatives “reiterated their government’s assurance” that the boats were not militia but fishing boats taking shelter near the reef because of inclement weather, he said. 

China’s foreign ministry issued the assurance earlier this week after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest over the sighting of the 220 Chinese ships.

On Thursday, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government believed that the Philippines and China could resolve the issue.

“China said that their fishermen were in the area seeking refuge from bad weather,” Roque told a virtual press briefing. “We hope the weather clears up and in the spirit of friendship we are hoping that their vessels will leave the area.”

The state weather bureau has reported no disturbances in the area.

President Rodrigo Duterte, Roque said, had raised concerns about the encroachment of the Chinese ships during a social call with Huang Xilian, China’s ambassador to Manila, ahead of the president’s birthday on Sunday. He added that Duterte also broached an international court ruling in 2016 that invalidated China’s expansive claims to the waterway.

“The president repeated what he told the United Nations, that we stand by and protect our territory, that we believe this has to be resolved through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] and we stand by our victory at the Arbitral Tribunal,” Roque told reporters.

Meanwhile, a group of Filipino fishermen appealed to the government on Thursday to ensure their safety when out on the contested waters, especially since Beijing has enforced a law that allows its coast guard to fire at boats perceived to be intruding in Chinese territory. 

“The presence of about 200 Chinese vessels in our marine territory came at the heels of the passing of the controversial Coast Guard Law. We can’t help but be alarmed of what could possibly happen to Filipino fisherfolk conducting livelihood in our own traditional fishing grounds with these big foreign vessels around,” said Fernando Hicap, chairman of the fishers’ organization Pamalakaya. 

“If our authorities could not dispel the Chinese vessels, the least they could do is to escort our fisher folks in Julian Felipe Reef, and ensure that no bad thing would happen to them during fishing operations,” Hicap said. 

International support

Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department backed Manila’s position regarding the large number of Chinese vessels clustered in disputed waters in the South China Sea. 

“The U.S. stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef. We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security,” said Ned Price, the department’s spokesman, referring to the People’s Republic of China. 

The Philippines, China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims over parts of the South China Sea. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the foreign ministry in Hanoi expressed its own concerns about Chinese ships in the Spratlys.

“[A]ctivities by Chinese vessels within the territorial waters of Sin Cowe Island in the Spratlys were a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and of the 1982 UNCLOS on foreign vessels' activities within a coastal country’s territorial waters,” ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told a regular press briefing.

“Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Spratlys in accordance with international laws,” she added, according to the Vietnamese Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.

Other countries joined the diplomatic fray as well.

Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur, British Minister of State for Asia Nigel Adams, Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Koshikawa Kazuhiko, and Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven J. Robinson all voiced concerns on Twitter about the unfolding situation in the South China Sea.

“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,” MacArthur said on Twitter.

Chinese ships

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies had reported that hundreds of Chinese militia ships maintained a constant presence near the Philippine-controlled Thitu Island in the Spratly chain, from late 2018 to early 2020.

Reports of Chinese ships harassing or intimidating Philippine fishing crews have increased in recent years. In June 2019, a Chinese ship suspected of being manned by militia collided with a Philippine fishing boat moored on Reed Bank near Palawan Island, causing the boat to capsize and leaving the Filipino crew marooned. 

Zachary Haver in Washington contributed to this report.

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