That’s what friends are for?: Chinese vessels swarming West Philippine Sea swell to 261

Published April 14, 2021, 8:50 AM

by Martin Sadongdong

China continues to allow its vessels to swarm the areas in the South China Sea which are clearly within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines despite repeated protests and calls for recall to ensure peace and stability in the region, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) revealed Tuesday night, April 13.

SINO SWARM — Despite repeated protests from the Philippine government, 240 Chinese vessels are still scattered in the West Philippine Sea as revealed in the latest round of sovereignty patrols on April 11, 2021. (Photos from the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea)

In fact, the Task Force disclosed that the number of Chinese vessels scattered within the Philippine waters has increased to at least 261.

In a statement, the NTF-WPS denounced the continuous swarming of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels in the WPS which, it said, “is prejudicial to the peace and security in the region.”

“The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea, and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the EEZ [exclusive economic zone],” the NTF-WPS said.

The number of the monitored vessels grew from the initial 220 flotilla spotted at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef — located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan — on March 7. Since then, the majority of the vessels have dispersed in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in Kalayaan, Palawan and other parts of the WPS.

According to the NTF-WPS, latest sovereignty patrols conducted last April 11 showed that 240 vessels believed to be manned by CMM were monitored at the Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks and Pagasa Island, all located within the country’s 200-nautical mile EEZ.

Specifically, there were 136 CMM vessels at Burgos (Gaven) Reef; 65 at Chigua (McKennan) Reef; 11 at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal; and nine at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef.

There were also six CMM vessels at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef; five at Kota (Loaita) Island; four at Pagasa (Thitu) Island; three at Zamora (Subi) Reef; and one at Likas (West York) Island.

“A minimum estimate that each can catch one ton of fish amounts to a conservative total of 240,000 kilos of fish illegally taken from Philippine waters every single day that the massed Chinese fishing vessels remain in the West Philippine Sea. These acts fall under illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF),” the NTF-WPS said.

In an earlier patrol by the Philippine Coast Guard, the NTF-WPS said Chinese poachers were also seen collecting giant clams in the vicinity of Pagasa Island in Kalayaan, Palawan.

However, the Chinese poachers quickly departed when they saw the PCG patrol ships approaching, it added.

“This act is a blatant violation of Philippine fisheries and wildlife laws, and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES),” the NTF-WPS emphasized.

Aside from these, also spotted during the sovereignty patrols were 11 warships from the PLAN and CCG.

Some of these were identified as two Houbei-class missile warships deployed at Panganiban Reef; one Corvette-class warship at Kagitingan (Feiry Cross) Reef; and one Navy tugboat at Zamora Reef. Meanwhile, two CCG vessels were seen lurking nearby Pagasa Island while two PLAN warships and three CCG ships were spotted at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales.

Additionally, there were also 10 CMM vessels at Bajo de Masinloc which were escorted by the PLAN and CCG warships.

The NTF-WPS stressed that the presence of PLAN and CCG warships in the WPS “contribute to the militarization” of the area.

“The Philippine government reiterates its demand upon China to withdraw all its vessels from the municipality of Kalayaan and the Philippine EEZ,” it said.

“In keeping with its role as a development partner, China should take the Philippine representations seriously and respect Philippine sovereignty, rights, and interests in consonance with the further strengthening of Philippine-China bilateral relations,” it concluded.

The revelation by the NTF-WPS came on the same day that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced it has summoned Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian to express “displeasure” over the continued “illegal presence” of Chinese vessels in the WPS, particularly at the Julian Felipe Reef.

President Duterte has repeatedly praised and declared his friendship with the Chinese government since he assumed the top post of the country in 2016, even going to the extent of almost burning bridges with its long-time ally, the United States, that include cancellation of the Visiting Forces Agreement that led to the stoppage of the regular war games between the Philippine and US forces.

The Phippine government, through its Defense Department, has started to reach out to the United States after the Julian Felipe Reef incident last month.