National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. believes that the Philippines and China will iron out the latest issue involving the swarming of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Esperon, who also serves as the chairman of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), said the sighting of around 220 Chinese vessels at the reef last March 7 should be dealt with in a multi-faceted way, and not only through military means.
“We have other instruments of national power aside from military: diplomatic, informational, economic, legal and political, financial resources, intelligence, peoples’ support,” he said.
As part of military response, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) have deployed two patrol ships and a jet plane to the Julian Felipe Reef for maritime patrols.
Esperon also stressed the importance of the voice of the international community after many countries expressed support to the Philippines in protesting China’s apparent incursion in the West Philippine Sea including the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
“It is not a hopeless case. We have allies and sympathetic countries. They may come short but international opinion on rule of law and conventions is important,” he said.
The NTF-WPS chairman noted that there is “no need to panic” since the country’s relationship with China “does not start and end with the South China Sea.”
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian previously said that the vessels were actually fishing boats that sought refuge at the reef due to rough sea conditions.
But Esperon thought otherwise.
“How could they be ordinary fishing vessels seeking shelter, as Amb. Huang says, when the weather is so good? And they have been there in increasing numbers since Nov. 2020. And they are not visibly there to fish,” he said.
Esperon said the Chinese vessels are steel-hulled with lengths ranging from 30 to 100 meters.
“[These are] longer than most of our [Phillippine] Coast Guard and Navy ships. Isn’t that intimidating when we have only two PN ships and one PCG vessel in the area as of now?” he said.
Nonetheless, Esperon said the government is doing the necessary steps to assert the country’s sovereignty in the area.
One way to do that is by demanding China to pull out their vessels which are believed to be manned by maritime militia, and by deploying military assets to maintain peace and order in the tension-filled waters.
As of March 23, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) monitored 183 Chinese vessels moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef. There were 34 vessels spotted as well around Pagasa (Thitu) Island and its five sandbars including at Sandy Cay, Esperon bared.
Julian Felipe Reef is a boomerang-shaped reef located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan while Pag-asa Island is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) about 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan.