The Philippines ordered its navy to increase “maritime sovereignty patrols” in the waters surrounding a disputed South China Sea reef after Beijing refused to obey an order from Manila to recall a fishing boat fleet from the area last week.
The Philippine Navy deployed an undisclosed number of additional ships to the waters surrounding Whitsun Reef, knowns as Julian Felipe Reef by Manila, this week after Philippine military chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana ordered the reinforcement, the Philippine military confirmed in a statement on Thursday.
“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ [AFP] strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground,” Philippine military spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in the statement.
The Philippine Coast Guard spotted 220 Chinese fishing ships believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel “moored in line formation” at Whitsun Reef on March 7 and reported the sighting to the AFP. The Philippine Navy conducted initial maritime patrols to confirm the Chinese fleet’s presence in the waters near Whitsun Reef, which is located within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but illegally claimed by Beijing.
“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement on March 21.
“The AFP will not renege from our commitment to protect and defend our maritime interest within the bounds of the law,” Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, an AFP spokesman, said at the time.
China responded to Manila’s order to recall its fishing fleet from Whitsun Reef by claiming that the boats were forced to anchor in the area due to adverse weather conditions.
“Recently, due to the sea conditions, some Chinese fishing boats have taken shelter from the wind near the Whitsun Reef. I think it is very normal and hope all parties can look at it rationally,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing on March 22.
Hua’s claim that poor weather caused the Chinese fleet to moor at Whitsun Reef contradicts Manila’s description of the weather conditions in the area at the time of the fleet’s initial sighting.
“Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night time,” a statement by the Philippine National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) read on March 21. The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s name for the section of the South China Sea directly west of the Philippines.
Whitsun Reef is positioned within the Philippines’ EEZ and Continental Shelf (CS), allowing Manila exclusive rights “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 directly surrounding the reef, the NTF-WPS said in its March 21 statement. The NTF-WPS describes Whitsun as “a large boomerang-shaped, shallow coral reef.” It is located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Palawan, a Philippine archipelagic province stretching southwest from the West Philippine Sea toward Sabah, Malaysia.