TENSION HEATS UP: 287 Chinese warships, militia vessels sighted by PHL maritime patrol in West Philippine Sea

CHINA WARSHIPS and militia vessels at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea

MANILA –Tension remains high in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea as China continues its aggressiveness in the region, including sending warships, Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels inside the Philippines territory and exclusive economic zone.

In its latest report,  Philippine maritime patrol has spotted 287 Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels, including Houbei missile warships, scattered over the various features of the Municipality of Kalayaan, both within and outside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the country, during its latest patrol.

The Chinese vessels were told to leave the Philippine exclusive zone since last month but refused, triggering the filing of several diplomatic protests by the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs.

Amid the incursions, the NTF-WPS said the country will continue law enforcement activities in Philippine waters.

“The Philippines maintains the deployment of law enforcement patrols and maritime exercises of the Philippine Coast Guard and Department of Agriculture – Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels on a rotational basis over the waters of the Municipality of Kalayaan and our Exclusive Economic Zone,” National Security Adviser and NTF-WPS chief Hermogenes Esperon said in a statement.

This developed as Armed Forces unveiled plans to convert an island in the region into a military hub with night-capable cameras to monitor activities there amid the rising tensions in China.

Meanwhile, Japanese, US and French troops kicked off their first-ever joint military drill in southwestern Japan amidst China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

An Australian naval ship also is taking part in the week-long air, land and sea exercises involving 300 ground troops from the three countries.

It comes as Japan deepens defense ties beyond its key US ally and with eyes on Beijing’s moves in the East and South China seas.

Meanwhile, a British aircraft carrier and German frigate are expected to be sent to the Indo-Pacific region later this year.

“Our objective is to drive away Chinese maritime militia and other Chinese vessels from our exclusive economic zone,” said AFP Chief of Staff General Cirilito Sobejana in television interview. 

Early this May, the Philippine Coast Guard released a video of its personnel challenging via radio the Chinese militia vessels spotted in Sabina Shoal, which is within the Philippines exclusive economic zone. Sabina Shoal is located nearly 130 nautical miles west of Puerto Princesa in Palawan and east of Ayungin Shoal.

“This is Philippine Coast Guard. We are BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409). You are within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. You are requested to provide the following: name of vessel, intention, last and next port of call on Channel 16,” said a female crew member of BRB Cabra in the video.

In another incident, a vessel carrying journalists were challenged by Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

 The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF WPS) said the count by the maritime patrol was made on May 9.

Bigger groupings of the Chinese vessels were sighted at the artificial islands built by China while some were observed near islands occupied by the Philippines, a statement signed by NTF WPS chair and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. showed.

The  Philippine maritime patrol sighted two CMM vessels and two Houbei-class missile warships inside Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, one CMM off Lawak (Nanshan) Island, 11 CMM vessels located approximately 29 nautical miles southwest of Recto (Reed) Bank; and another CMM vessel off Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

A Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel was seen at the shoal during an earlier patrol last May 7.

“As for the features forming part of the Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks, the 9 May 2021 maritime patrol reported the presence of 34 CMMs at Juan Felipe (Whitsun) Reef (JFR), two Vietnamese (VN) logistics/supply ships, and one VN Coast Guard vessel at Sin Cowe East (Grierson) Reef and 77 CMMs in Chigua Reef,” the NTF WPS said.

The task force also emphasized that Julian Felipe Reef is a low tide elevation (LTE) located 175 nautical miles from Bataraza, Palawan, and within the country’s 200-nautical mile EEZ.

“It is part of Philippine territory inasmuch as it is located within the overlapping 12 NM (nautical mile) territorial seas of McKennan (Chigua) Reef and of another possible high-tide feature, Grierson (Sin Cowe East) Reef, also our territories under the Municipality of Kalayaan,” it added.

From May 3 to 10, the Area Task Force–North reported an average of four CCG vessels at Bajo de Masinloc (BdM) (Scarborough Shoal), and an average of one CCG each for both the Pag-asa Islands and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

“Despite China’s illegal unilateral ‘fishing ban’ covering its fishing vessels in waters north of 12 degrees latitude in the South China Sea, from 1 May to August 16, 2021, two CMMs were nonetheless observed harvesting shells inside the lagoon of the BdM,” NTF WPS said.

It also reported that an average of 10 Filipino fishing boats were seen fishing inside the BdM lagoon from May 7 to 9.

“The ATF-West 9 May 2021 maritime patrol reported 14 CMM vessels and one CCG vessel positioned off the main Pag-asa Island, and 16 CMMs at Zamora (Subi) Reef. An earlier 6 May 2021 patrol sighted 24 CMMs, complemented by one CCG anchored at the Pag-asa Cays showing no visible activity,” the body said.

It added that the same patrol observed two CMMs at Panata Island; one Vietnamese fishing vessel off Kota (Loaita) Island; 64 CMM in Burgos (Gaven) Reef North; two Vietnamese fisheries surveillance ships off Paredes (Discovery Great) Reef; and one Chinese rescue service ship, three People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) warships and 55 CMM vessels at Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef.

“In line with Presidential directives, the NTF WPS is undertaking continuous law enforcement function and maritime exercises in the WPS. The PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) and the BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) are coordinating their efforts under the former’s Task Force Pagsasanay, and deployed PCG BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4003), BFAR MCS 3001 and 3008 at the Municipality of Kalayaan, while PCG BRP Sindangan (MRRV-4407) and BFAR MCS 3005 are covering the area of BdM,” the body said.

It added that PCG and BFAR vessels are being complemented by the Philippine National Police–Maritime Group (PNP-MG) through the assignment of four high-speed tactical watercraft, three police gunboats, and police fast boats to patrol the municipal waters and portions of the country’s EEZ in the WPS.

These police water assets are under the Regional Maritime Units 1, 3, 4B and personnel of the 2nd Special Operations Unit based in Palawan.

“Moreover, PNP-MG personnel to be posted at the Municipality of Kalayaan are set to depart on 15 May 2021,” it added.

NTF WPS said these efforts are in wake of the April 27 and 29 Sabina Shoal law enforcement function and maritime exercises where the PCG challenged and successfully dispersed seven and five CMM vessels, respectively, for illegally encroaching in the country’s EEZ.

“On 7 and 8 May 2021, government vessels again spotted CMM vessels illegally occupying Sabina Shoal. BFAR MCS 3001 accompanied by BFAR MCS 3008 challenged and dispersed three CMMs on both days,” it added.

Due to the shallow waters inside the reef, the BFAR launched rubber boats to escort the CMMs out of the shoal.

“On 4 May 2021, PCG BRP Sindangan, traveling with BFAR MCS 3005, was illegally shadowed by a CCG vessel and issued two radio challenges while approaching BdM,” it added.

This incident along with the continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands have been submitted to the relevant agencies for possible diplomatic actions.

“The Philippine government continues to strengthen its presence in the WPS with a view towards law enforcement, deterrence of illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing (IUUF), and protection of the welfare and safety of our fisherfolk. The latter are encouraged to sail and fish in the WPS,” NTF WPS said.

It added that NTF WPS remains guided by the national policy and interest in asserting our territorial and sovereign rights as upheld by the 2016 arbitral ruling.

“The articulation of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte at the 75th UN General Assembly emphasizing that the ruling is now part of international law and beyond compromise remains the supreme expression of foreign policy by this government. We reiterate that the Philippines shall continue to defend its sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea, and shall not yield an inch of our territory,” the task force said.