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China ships ‘swarming’ both sides of PH, says AFP

Chinese vessels are active in Philippine waters on both sides of the country, with some 30 fishing boats swarming several shoals near the Reed Bank to the west and research vessels roaming the eastern side of the Philippine Sea, officials said Thursday.

Amid the renewed activity, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said it was China that was escalating tensions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), and not the presence of US forces, as Senator Robin Padilla suggested.

But the Chinese Embassy in Manila, in a statement, stressed that China is an “important force” in ensuring peace and stability in the South China Sea despite its continued aggressions in the region.

“China is an important force for maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. It abides by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and is committed to upholding and promoting international rule of law,” the embassy said.

It maintained that Beijing respects and acts in accordance with international law.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., meanwhile, said more countries have expressed their intention to participate in a joint sail in the WPS, “a very good indication” that there are like-minded nations who want to promote a rules-based international order and ensure security in the Indo-Pacific region.

The military reported a resurgence of Chinese swarming activity in the West Philippine Sea.

Aerial patrols conducted by the Armed Forces Western Command on Sept. 6 and 7 spotted 23 Chinese fishing vessels in Iroquois Reef at the southern end of Reed Bank, northeast of the Spratly Islands.

“Additional swarming was observed in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, where five Chinese fishing vessels were present, and in Baragatan (Nares) Bank, with two Chinese fishing vessels recorded,” the Western Command said.

A routine air patrol conducted by the Philippine Navy on Aug. 24 spotted 33 Chinese fishing vessels in Rozul (Iroquis) Reef within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, “making this intrusion a violation of Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

“Previous swarming incidents in the area have also been followed by reports of massive coral harvesting, further raising concerns about their harmful environmental impact,” it said.

The same air patrol also reported swarming activity in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, which is also located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and serves as a marker for the approach to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

But the Chinese Embassy said: “While firmly safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, China adheres to the position of settling disputes through negotiation and consultation and managing differences through rules and mechanisms.”

“China endeavors to achieve win-win outcomes through mutually beneficial cooperation, and is committed to making the South China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship,” it added.

Meanwhile, National Security Council (NSC) assistant director-general Jonathan Malaya said Chinese research vessels are reportedly roaming the eastern side of the Philippine Sea.

“We also need to monitor the eastern side of the Philippines, which is the Philippine Rise or Benham Rise,” Malaya said in Filipino on Dobol B TV.

Malaya said a few years ago, China named some submerged features in the eastern side of the Philippines.

The Armed Forces Western Command said the increase in Chinese swarming activity has been a source of tension in the WPS, with “potential implications for Philippines’ maritime security, fisheries conservation, territorial integrity, and preservation of the marine environment.”

The international community has repeatedly criticized China for illegally building air strips and military assets in maritime features that fall within other countries’ exclusive economic zones, it said.

In August, Chinese ships used a water cannon and blocked some ships to repel Filipino resupply boats from approaching a Philippine outpost in the Ayungin Shoal.

Earlier this month, four Chinese Coast Guard and four maritime militia vessels again shadowed, blocked and harassed the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships and supply boats on a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre.

The Senate special committee on Philippine maritime and admiralty zones on Thursday started its hearing on proposals that seek to define and institutionalize the Philippines’ maritime zones.

Crafting a law that will institutionalize maritime zones would be the Philippines’ response to China’s “10-dash line,” said Senator Francis Tolentino, who chairs the panel.

Last month, China unveiled a new map that showed its extended territorial claims, including parts of the West Philippine Sea inside its “10-dash line.”

Tolentino on Thursday raised the idea of changing the name West Philippine Sea to Greater West Philippine Sea, but Foreign Affairs Undersecretary said such a move might not be recognized by the international community.

He said, for example, that “West Philippine Sea” does not appear in foreign maps. As the sessions started, Tolentino cited the need to define the Philippine maritime zones which will “allow Filipinos to responsibly enjoy the bounty of the Philippines’ rich maritime and archipelagic waters.” “Leaving the Philippine maritime zones largely undefined will slow our ability to responsibly exploit and develop our resources,” he added.

He said the Philippines has been importing fish, but there’s a huge untapped potential in the disputed territory. Tolentino said his committee would hold several hearings, and call as resource persons maritime and international law experts.

BASE INSPECTION. General Romeo Brawner Jr., Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (center), and Admiral John Aquilino, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command (left), walk with US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson (below) as they inspect Lal-lo Airport and Naval Base Camilo Osias in Cagayan Province on Thursday. Inset shows some of the 30 Chinese ships the military says are ‘swarming’ the West Philippine Sea anew. AFP Photos

Padilla expressed support for the nine bills pending before the Senate that would establish the Philippine maritime zones. Asked about Padilla’s statement that it was the US presence in the Philippines that was escalating tensions in the region, Teodoro said it was the Chinese, not the Americans who were doing that.

“I respectfully disagree. It is the expansionist policy of China that is actually escalating the tensions not only between us but with Vietnam and other actors,” Teodoro said in an interview on ANC.

“And their 10-dash line actually is the best proof that they want to escalate tensions within the area because now even Brunei is affected and India is affected and Nepal is affected,” he added.

The Defense chief also pointed out that China did not recognize the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile EEZ. During a hearing of the Senate national defense committee on Tuesday, Padilla questioned the presence of an American plane during the latest resupply mission.

But Defense Undersecretary Ignacio Madriaga and Prof. Jay Batongbacal said there is nothing wrong with the presence of a US military plane during resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal.

Batongbacal said there is freedom of navigation and overflight in the areas near Ayungin Shoal, which means the presence of a US military aircraft does not violate any international laws.

“That area is part of our exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, that is Ayungin Shoal. That is not land territory. There is no territorial sea there, no territorial airspace and therefore there is freedom of navigation and overflight around Ayungin Shoal,” he said.

Brawner, meanwhile, said the AFP is working with other countries that want to participate in a joint sail in WPS. “Aside from the US, several countries have [expressed] their intention of joining the joint sail,” he added.

The United States Indo-Pacific Command commander Admiral John Aquilino said that the US and the Philippines have conducted their first joint patrol.

“Under the title of joint patrols just recently on the 4th of September, we executed the first one that was aligned, designed, and built by General Brawner’s team, and my team executed with approval from our leaders,” Aquilino said.

“We’ll continue to do that for a long term, ultimately to ensure that we can maintain the freedom of the seas, freedom of airspace so that all the nations in the region can enjoy peace and prosperity,” he added.

On Wednesday, Teodoro pointed out the importance of alliances with like-minded countries amid “the changing threat situation” in the WPS.

“With the changing threat situation and the moves of other countries in the WPS, we need to leverage our alliances not for anything but to enforce rules-based international order and the UNCLOS,” Teodoro said, referring to the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, of which both China and the Philippines are signatories.

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