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Philippines fires off protest after Chinese ships swarm waterway

By Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporters

THE PHILIPPINES on Wednesday fired off another diplomatic protest against China after authorities spotted a swarm of Chinese vessels, including six war ships within its waters in the South China Sea.

Two Houbei class missile warships were spotted at Mischief Reef, one Corvette class warship at the Fiery Cross Reef and one navy tugboat at Subi Reef, a Philippine task force on border security said on Tuesday night.

Two Chinese coast guard vessels were also spotted at Thitu Island, which the Philippines calls “Kalayaan,” according to a report based on patrols by Philippine authorities on April 11.

“Changing my policy of acting only on national task force requests,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. tweeted.

The Philippine task force said more than 200 Chinese ships were scattered in waters within its exclusive economic zone. About 15 vessels either manned by Chinese militia, People’s Liberation Army Navy or the Chinese Coast Guard had also been spotted at the Scarborough Shoal.

“The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the exclusive economic zone,” the task force said.

The presence of naval warships also “contributes to the militarization of the area,” it said. “The combined presence of the Chinese vessels is “prejudicial to the peace and security of the region.”

Meanwhile, about 240 Chinese vessels that China claims are ordinary fishing vessels have spread out to a wider area in the South China Sea, the agency said. The ships allegedly manned by Chinese maritime forces were scattered across the Spratlys, about 175 nautical miles west of Palawan province, it added.

It said 136 vessels were seen at Gaven Reef and more than 60 vessels were at McKennan Reef.

The rest of the ships were scattered in other parts of the disputed territory — 11 at the Second Thomas Shoal, nine at Whitsun Reef, six at Mischief Reef, five at Loaita Island, four at Thitu Island, three at Subi Reef and one at West York Island.

The ships were about 60 meters long.

“This is an issue of fact that we refer to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Defense and Task Force West Philippine Sea for verification,” presidential spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. said in a text message when sought for comment.

He earlier parroted the Chinese Embassy’s claim that the vessels at Whitsun Reef were manned by fishermen who were forced to moor there due to bad weather.

Manila on Monday summoned China’s ambassador to convey its “utmost displeasure” over the continued presence of Chinese militia vessels at Whitsun Reef.

The reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe, is within its exclusive economic zone, Foreign Affairs acting Undersecretary Elizabeth P. Buensuceso had told Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian.

Meanwhile, retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio said all countries should stand against China to keep order at sea.

“If China succeeds in taking the South China Sea or in making [it] its own national lake… then the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) will collapse for other naval powers will also seize their new seas as their own possessions,” he told an online news briefing.

“That will mean the beginning of a maritime order created and enforced by naval guns and the entrenchment of the ‘might is right’ concept,” he added.

Chester B. Cabalza, president of International Development and Security Cooperation, cited the need for an alliance to pressure China into following maritime order.

The Philippines, aside from boosting its military, should work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for regional stability, Rommel Jude Ong from the Ateneo School of Government said.

Renato C. de Castro, international studies professor at De La Salle University, said the Philippines should try to prevent China from winning in the South China Sea “without actually fighting.”

Jay L. Batongbacal, head of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said China’s Coast Guard Law, which allows the body to fire at enemies at sea, is limited to areas within its jurisdiction.

“The implementation of the law cannot be used to assert China’s excessive claims to jurisdiction in the South China Sea,” he said.

Meanwhile, Philippine business groups said the government should protect Whitsun Reef’s rich marine life and mineral deposits “for the well-being of each and every Filipino.”

“It is only through peaceful coexistence that we can achieve prosperity for all,” the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Management Association of the Philippines, Makati Business Club and Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development said in a joint statement.

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