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Senators back Manila protest over mooring of China militia ships

SENATORS on Monday backed the Philippine government’s diplomatic protest against China after more than 200 Chinese vessels were spotted moored at a reef in the South China Sea that Manila claims.

Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said the presence of the Chinese vessels within the Philippine territory is a “severe provocation” that will only escalate the tension in the disputed waterway.

“While we scramble as COVID-19 cases rise, China rudely advances into our seas,” she said in a statement in Filipino. “Not aggravating the tensions in our seas is the absolute least China could have done in the middle of a global pandemic. It can’t show respect.”

The Philippines on Sunday filed a diplomatic protest against China after the Chinese militia vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. tweeted.

The Philippine government said it was concerned that the vessels had massed at the reef, which it calls Julian Felipe, had no actual fishing activities. They had their full white lights turned on during night time, a national task force overseeing border disputes with Beijing said in a statement at the weekend, citing the Philippine Coast Guard.

The task force cited potential overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to navigation safety.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila said the reef, which it calls Niu’e Jiao, is part of China’s Nansha Qundao.

“Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in its adjacent waters for many years,” it said in an e-mailed statement. “Recently, some Chinese fishing vessels take shelter near Niu’e Jiao due to rough sea conditions. It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances,” it added.

The embassy said the vessels there were not Chinese militia. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”

Ms. Hontiveros said the government should study other ways to make China pay, noting that there could be more environmental damage and loss of natural resources due to their presence at the reef.

“We have exclusive rights over the resources — fish, oil and natural gas — in Julian Felipe Reef. That’s supposed to be ours but China keeps trying to snatch what is not theirs,” she said. “It’s maddening how China continues to snatch away our nation’s wealth while we’re in the depths of an economic crisis.”

Ms. Hontiveros last month said China owes the Philippines more than P800 billion in marine damage and losses in the South China Sea.

Senator Francis N. Pangilinan also backed the diplomatic protest, saying “China is unabated in its militarization and expansionism in the West Philippine Sea” during the pandemic, referring to areas of the South China Sea with the country’s exclusive economic zone.

He accused China of using donated vaccines as a “geopolitical weapon.” “We are behind the government in asserting our rights in our seas. We may not be as strong militarily but we are certainly strong legally, morally and diplomatically.” — Vann Marlo M. Villegas

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