The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) on Wednesday said it still stands by the 2016 arbitral ruling which established the country’s rights over the waters.
Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr., National Security Adviser and NTF-WPS chairman, made the statement as the task force reported that Chinese government and “maritime militia” vessels — now numbering almost 300 — have been seen inside and outside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The task force remains guided by the national policy and interest in asserting our territorial and sovereign rights as upheld by the 2016 arbitral ruling, Esperon said.
He said President Rodrigo Duterte’s speech at the 75th United Nations General Assembly last September “remains the supreme expression of foreign policy by the government.”
“The Philippines shall continue to defend its sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea, and shall not yield an inch,” Esperon added.
Meanwhile, Esperon said maritime patrols on May 9 observed 287 Chinese maritime militia vessels scattered inside and outside the country’s EEZ.
Also seen were at least three Chinese warships, about six vessels of the China Coast Guard, as well as some law enforcement and fishing vessels of Vietnam.
According to the NTF-WPS, bigger groupings of Chinese maritime militia vessels were sighted at the artificial islands of China while some were observed near islands occupied by the Philippines.
It said that on May 9, two Chinese maritime militia vessels and two Houbei-class Type 22 missile boats were inside Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, one Chinese maritime militia vessel was at Lawak Island, and 11 Chinese maritime militia vessels were located southwest of Recto (Reed) Bank.
On the same day, another Chinese maritime militia vessel was seen at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, where a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel was seen on May 7.
At the Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks, the May 9 patrol observed 34 Chinese maritime militia vessels at Juan Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, two Vietnamese logistics ships and one Vietnam Coast Guard vessel at Grierson (Sin Cowe East) Reef, and 77 Chinese maritime militia vessel in McKennan (Chigua) Reef.
The NTF-WPS maintained that Juan Felipe Reef is within the Philippines’ EEZ.
“It is part of Philippine territory inasmuch as it is located within the overlapping 12-nautical mile territorial seas of Chigua Reef and of another possible high-tide feature, Grierson Reef, also our territories under the Municipality of Kalayaan,” it said.
Also on May 9, a total of 14 Chinese maritime militia vessels and one CCG ship were positioned off Pag-asa Island, and 16 Chinese maritime militia vessels at Zamora (Subi) Reef.
Days earlier, on May 6, patrollers spotted 24 Chinese maritime militia vessels and one CCG ship anchored at the Pag-asa Cays, the task force said.
Patrols also observed two Chinese maritime militia vessels were seen at Panata Island, a Vietnamese fishing vessel at Kota (Loaita) Island, 64 Chinese maritime militia vessels in Burgos (Gaven) Reef, two Vietnam Fisheries Surveillance Ships at Paredes (Discovery Great) Reef, as well as a Chinese rescue service ship, three warships, and 55 militia vessels at Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef.
The task force also reported that on May 7 and 8, personnel aboard two vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) confronted some Chinese maritime militia vessels illegally “occupying” Sabina (Escoda) Shoal.
The BFAR vessels challenged and dispersed the militia vessels on both days, it said.
Due to the shallow waters inside the reef, the BFAR launched rubber boats to escort the militia vessels out of the shoal.
It can be recalled that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) already challenged and dispersed several Chinese maritime militia vessels from the same shoal on April 27 and 29.
Meanwhile, the NTF-WPS’ northern arm reported that from May 3 to 10, two Chinese maritime militia vessels were observed harvesting shells inside the “lagoon” of Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales.
“This is despite China’s illegal unilateral ‘fishing ban’ in waters north of 12 degrees latitude in the South China Sea, from May 1 to August 16,” the task force said.
For the same period of patrols, an average of four CCG vessels were also observed at Bajo de Masinloc.
On May 4, the PCG ship BRP Sindangan was “shadowed” and challenged twice by a CCG ship while approaching the shoal.
“This incident, along with the continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands, have been submitted to the relevant agencies for the possible diplomatic actions,” the NTF-WPS said.
The task force also reported that from May 7 to 9, a daily average of 10 Filipino boats were seen fishing inside Bajo de Masinloc.
It maintained that Filipino fishermen are not covered by China’s fishing ban and will be protected in features inside the EEZ.
“They are encouraged to sail and fish in the WPS,” the task force said.
According to the NTF-WPS, law enforcement operations at the Kalayaan Island Group are being handled by a PCG ship and two BFAR vessels while operations at Bajo de Masinloc are carried out by another PCG ship and a BFAR vessel.
The Philippine National Police’s Maritime Group, on the other hand, has assigned four high-speed tactical watercraft, three gun boats, and fast boats to patrol municipal waters and parts of the WPS.
Members of that unit who will be posted at the Municipality of Kalayaan are set to depart on May 15, the task force said.
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