Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana insisted Monday night, April 19, that patrol ships and ordinary fishing boats can still access the features claimed by the country in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) despite the continued presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels.
Lorenzana said ships from the Philippine Navy (PN), Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) have been frequenting the WPS, particularly Pagasa Island, to conduct maritime patrols and assert the country’s sovereignty.
“President, wala namang balakid ‘yong ating pagpunta doon. Kahit nga ‘yong Navy ships natin panay ang punta sa Pagasa Island at magpatrolya doon (President, we are not barred from going there. Even the Navy ships are consistently going to Pagasa Island to conduct patrols),” Lorenzana told President Duterte in a televised Cabinet meeting.
“Iyong ating mga Coast Guard ships palagi, Mr. President, ang patrolya nila diyan sa mga areas na marami tayong fishermen, and pati na ‘yong Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources na barko nandiyan na rin. Nagpapalit-palit lang sila, Mr. President, dahil limitado ‘yong mga barko natin but we can — our ships can go there (Mr. President, our Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ships are frequently patrolling there. They are just taking shifts because we have limited ships but we can — our ships can go there),” he added.
Lorenzana said military ships are also conducting resupply missions on the Kalayaan Island Group without the interference of any foreign vessel.
“So wala pong — wala pong ano, pati ‘yong ating mga fishermen ay libre naman silang makapangisda nang hindi sila ginugulo ng mga Chinese (So there really is no [stopping us], even our fishermen can freely catch fish without being bothered by the Chinese),” he said.
Lorenzana made the remark just as Duterte broke his silence on the heightened tension between the Philippines and China in the WPS.
According to Duterte, he is not authorizing the sending of gray ships or military warships in the WPS to avoid a confrontation with Beijing. He also conceded that Manila is “not in possession of the sea” and it “belongs to them [China].”
Lorenzana’s remark contradicted an incident where a civilian boat carrying a news crew from ABSCBN was reportedly chased by a Chinese Coast Guard ship and two missile attack craft from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
The boat was trying to access Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Reef) in Spratly Islands, located approximately 105 nautical miles west of Palawan, when they were shadowed and told to leave by the Chinese vessels while inside the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Civilians said the chasing of ordinary fishing boats by larger and more powerful Chinese vessels has become the norm since Beijing established their presence in the WPS.
More than a month since the first sighting of 220 vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7, over 240 Chinese vessels were still dispersed in the WPS and Kalayaan Island Group despite repeated protests lodged by the government against China due to their continued intrusion in the Philippines’ territory.
Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, however, has insisted that the features where the vessels were found are part of China’s territory.