Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed this weekend that Philippine fighter jets have been flying over Julian Felipe Reef in the South China Sea daily to monitor a 220-strong Chinese fishing boat fleet illegally moored there.
“We send aircraft every day to that [Julian Felipe Reef]. Our naval patrols need not be (sent) there to monitor,” Lorenzana said in a statement on March 26.
“Observing from the air is easier, quicker, and more accurate,” he added.
The Philippine Air Force has specifically deployed “AS211 jet aircraft” to Juan Felipe Reef to keep tabs on the Chinese fleet, which is believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia, according to the Philippine news site Rappler.
“We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines. There will be an increased presence of the Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard ships to conduct sovereignty patrols and protect our fishermen in the West Philippine Sea,” Lorenzana said in a statement issued March 27.
The West Philippine Sea is the name Manila uses to refer to the section of the South China Sea directly west of the Philippines. Julian Felipe Reef is also sometimes referred to as Whitsun Reef, though this is not the Philippine government’s preferred name. The boomerang-shaped coral reef lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), granting Manila full rights to fishing and natural resource recovery in the reef’s waters. China illegally lays claim to Julian Felipe Reef and sent an imposing fishing fleet to anchor off its coast in early March in what Manila has denounced as an “incursion” into the Philippines’ sovereign territory.
“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” Lorenzana said in a statement on March 21.
The Philippine Coast Guard spotted 220 Chinese fishing boats “moored in line formation” at the reef on March 7 and reported the sighting to the Philippines’ armed forces, which subsequently confirmed the Chinese fleet’s presence via naval and air patrols.
Beijing has refused to recall its fishing fleet despite Manila’s repeated demands for its removal, which include formal diplomatic protests filed with the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines. In response, the Philippine military has ordered increased “maritime sovereignty patrols” to be carried out near the reef.
The Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times on March 29 reiterated a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry on March 22 that the Chinese fleet moored there due to adverse weather conditions, a claim Manila disputes.
“[I]t is inappropriate to claim they are a Chinese maritime militia because it is normal for fishermen from any country to take shelter in nearby islands and reefs in complicated and changing maritime situations,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed Chinese military expert as saying.
“The Philippines should act with restraint and not send warplanes or warships to disrupt normal sheltering activities by Chinese fishing vessels, which could stir up tensions between the two countries,” the expert stated.