220 Chinese militia vessels spotted in West PH Sea

The government expressed concern over the presence of 220 Chinese militia vessels that were massed in the West Philippine Sea, and vowed to closely monitor the situation to ensure the protection of the country’s sovereignty. 

In a statement issued late Saturday, March 20, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTS-WPS) raised the possibility the Chinese vessels could be engaged in overfishing and posed risks to navigation safety. 

“The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) received a confirmed report from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) that around two hundred twenty (220) Chinese Fishing Vessels (CFVs), believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) on March 7, 2021,” the task force said in a statement. 

The task force reported that the Chinese vessels spotted in the reef were not engaged in fishing, and kept full white lights turned on during night time.

“The NTF-WPS notes this circumstance as a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation,” it said. 

According to the task force, the Julian Felipe Reef, located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, is located within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS). 

The country “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources which encompass both living resources, such as fish, and non-living resources such as oil and natural gas” in the area. 

“The Government will continue to monitor the situation as it remains steadfast in its duty to protect Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights in the country’s maritime domain,” the task force said. 

“In consonance with the Philippine commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 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 added. 

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. commented on Twitter that any filing of diplomatic protest over the presence of Chinese vessels in local waters would depend on the recommendation of the military.

“Only if the generals tell me. In my watch foreign policy is the fist in the iron glove of the armed forces. I don’t care for media. Undependable. And civilian,” Locsin tweeted Saturday night.

The Philippines is locked in a dispute with China over ownership of some islands in the West Philippine Sea. 

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines after it nullified China's nine-dash claim over the South China Sea.  Beijing however refused to recognize the tribunal's decision and pressed ahead with its controversial reclamation works in the disputed territory. 

China has overlapping claims with the Philippines and other nations over the resource-rich South China Sea.

The task force, formed through Memorandum Circular No. 94 in March 2016, is in charge of orchestrating the national effort and achieving unified action in the West Philippine Sea.

The task force is chaired by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., while the members include representatives from the Departments of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Justice (DOJ), Interior and Local Governments (DILG), National Defense (DND), Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Energy (DOE), Agriculture (DA), Trade and Industry (DTI), Finance (DOF, the military, and the police, among others.