They never left.
A government task force has called on China to pull out its vessels from the West Philippine Sea after some ships remained anchored at the Julian Felipe Reef while others simply dispersed to nearby reefs located with local waters.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) has expressed “deep concern” over the continued “unlawful” presence of the Chinese ships in local waters.
Around 44 ships, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia (CMM), have reportedly stayed at the Julian Felipe Reef out of the 220 ships first spotted early this month authorities. The other Chinese vessels however moved to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group, situated in Palawan, according to the task force.
“The Philippines calls on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag. NTF-WPS stands by its observation that these so-called ‘fishing’ vessels are maritime militia,” the task force led by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said in a statement.
The task force said the buildup and massing formation from Julian Felipe Reef to other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group was “hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea.”
“They may be doing illicit activities at night and their lingering (swarming) presence may cause irreparable damage to the marine environment due to marine pollution and destruction of coral reefs. Their swarming also poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ (executive economic zone),” the task force said.
In seeking the pullout of the Chinese vessels, the task force reaffirmed the country’s assertion of Philippine sovereignty, and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the KIG and West Philippine Sea.
From the 220 Chinese ships sighted on March 7 at the Julian Felipe Reef, the number of vessels went down to 199 on March 27 and 183 on March 22 based on report of the task force.
“On 29 March 2021, forty-four (44) CMM remain moored, anchored, and stationary at Julian Felipe Reef,” the task force said, citing the conduct of three aerial and maritime patrol missions as well as filing of a diplomatic protest by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Authorities however spotted 115 Chinese vessels in Chigua (Kennan) Reef, 45 vessels in Pag-asa (Thitu) Islands and 50 more vessels dispersed in Panganiban (Mischief), Kagitingan (Fiery), and Zamora (Subi) Reefs, all within the Kalayaan Island Group.
“Four People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels are also at Panganiban Reef, which forms part of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of the main Philippine archipelago,” the task force said.
The task force said the country appreciated the support extended by foreign allies who backed the rules-based order consistent with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as affirmed by the 2016 Arbitral Award.
“Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China’s assertion of its so-called ‘indisputable integrated sovereignty’ over almost all of the South China Sea, part of which is the WPS,” the task force said.
It also promised to remain “steadfast” in upholding Philippine sovereignty over its territories, and protecting its EEZ in accordance with international law.
The government has already deployed more maritime vessels from the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to conduct enhanced routine patrols “to safeguard our sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national patrimony in the Kalayaan Island Group,” the task force said.
The task force first broke news about the presence of the Chinese ships at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 21. The Chinese embassy in Manila however denied the presence of militia vessels in the area, saying fishing vessels usually take refuge during rough sea conditions.
The Palace has also dismissed speculations that China was trying to soften the blow of its incursion into local waters by donating vaccines to the Philippines.
Citing the dual track in the country’s’ policy towards China, Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said vaccine cooperation does not automatically mean Manila would surrender its position on the West Philippine Sea.
China recently donated 1 million doses of Sinovac vaccines to the Philippines that allowed Manila to start its immunization drive. An additional 1 million Chinese developed-vaccines, procured by the Philippine government this time, arrived in Manila last week.