PH protests vs. China mount

The Philippines has filed two new diplomatic protests against China over the presence of 160 Chinese vessels in some features and islands in the country’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.

Balikatan 2021, the joint military exercises between the Philippines and United States, drew to a close with 640 troops taking part in a number of scaled-down events. The 36th edition of the'war games' saw all troops strictly observing health and safety protocols amid the raging pandemic, according to the military officers.

In a diplomatic note dated April 21, 2021, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the presence of these vessels in the West Philippine Sea "blatantly infringe[s] upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction."

"The vessels were observed within the territorial sea of high tide features in the Kalayaan Island Group, in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and in and around the territorial waters of Bajo de Masinloc," the department said.

The DFA cited five Chinese Coast Guard vessels with bow numbers 3103, 3301, 3305, 5101, and 5203 that were sighted within the vicinities of Pag-asa Island, Bajo de Masinloc and Ayungin Shoal.

"Through these protests, the DFA reminded China that Bajo de Masinloc, Pag-asa Islands, Panata, Parola, Kota Islands, Chigua and Burgos Reefs are integral parts of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty and jurisdiction. The Philippines exercises sovereign rights and jurisdiction over Julian Felipe Reef and Ayungin Shoal," the DFA told China.

Despite repeated calls and protests from the Philippines, Chinese militia vessels continue to linger in the area and have even been spotted in other parts of the Kalayaan Island Group in the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan off the country’s northwestern waters.

"The continued swarming and threatening presence of the Chinese vessels creates an atmosphere of instability and is a blatant disregard of the commitments by China to promote peace and stability in the region," the department said.

The Philippines’ long-time ally, the United States, along with countries such as Japan, Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand called on China to leave and cease raising tensions in the area by pulling out of the West Philippine Sea.

The DFA urged Beijing to adhere to international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral ruling that denigrated China's massive claim over the resource-rich South China Sea.

While China is a signatory to the UNCLOS along with the Philippines, it does not recognize the ruling and insisted on its nine-dash line claim over the resource-rich South China Sea.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims over parts of the South China Sea.

The DFA reminded China to abide by its commitments under the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in particular the exercise of self-restraint.

"Claimants should maintain an atmosphere conducive to the ongoing negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," the DFA said.

In August 2018, ASEAN and China agreed to a single draft of the code of conduct or COC, with an agreement reached in November 2018 for both sides to finalize the document within three years, starting from 2019.

The Philippines earlier warned that China’s aggressive actions can undermine the negotiations for a code aimed at restraining hostile acts in the waters.

A Washington-based think tank on Friday said China has kept up a sustained presence around a disputed Julian Felipe (Whitsun) reef for two years, despite Beijing’s claims that its vessels were only sheltering in the area.

The South China Morning Post reported that the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which tracked the vessels’ automatic identification system broadcasts, also identified 14 of the Chinese ships captured in photos and videos taken by Philippine coastguard patrols at the Julian Felipe reef.

AMTI said the 14 ships, all from southern China’s Guangdong province, were first tracked patrolling Union Banks, which includes the Julian Felipe reef, in early 2019 and nine of them have broadcast AIS from there several times.

“As with other known militia deployments, the behavior of these vessels defies commercial explanation. Most have remained in the area for weeks, or even months, riding at anchor in clusters without engaging in any fishing activity,” AMTI said in a report on Wednesday.

“Many are trawlers which, by definition, must move to fish. And blue skies have debunked the initial excuse from the Chinese embassy in Manila that they were riding out a storm.”

The Palace on Friday denied that President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping have an existing verbal agreement allowing China to fish in Philippine waters.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque issued the denial after retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio said the supposed verbal deal between Duterte and Xi has emboldened Chinese vessels to stay in the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS).

“The allegation is without basis and is quite simply conjecture,” Roque said in an online press briefing.

“There is no truth to the speculation of a purported ‘verbal fishing agreement’ between the two leaders, nor that Chinese vessels were encouraged to stay in the West Philippine Sea despite the diplomatic protests and strongly worded statements of Philippine government officials,” Roque said.

Roque’s denial directly contradicted President Duterte’s own words in July 2019, when he defended in a speech the verbal agreement that he said he reached with Xi in October 2016.

At the time, the President cited the agreement to explain the presence of a Chinese fishing vessel that rammed and sank a Filipino boat in the Recto Bank, also within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Carpio earlier said the Chinese vessels were ignoring the Philippines’ repeated demands for them to leave WPS because of Duterte’s verbal fishing agreement with Xi.

Under Philippine law, a fishing agreement "can only be done through a treaty" or "an international agreement concluded between states in written form," Roque said.

"No such treaty or agreement exists between the Philippines and China," Roque said.

Meanwhile, Senator Imee Marcos urged the President to immediately appoint a special envoy to China to discuss the continued presence of Chinese militia in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

She said the envoy should preferably be a member of the Duterte family, saying this was a “very Asian strategy.”

She said she supported Duterte’s policy of shunning confrontation and “pursuing common ground with China and other claimants to the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, meanwhile, said learning to work together in difficult times was the most significant lesson that American and Filipino troops learned during the annual Balikatan exercise, which closed Friday.

Lorenzana said the knowledge gained, however, has been mainly used for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, which Lorenzana said is indicative of how the Philippines intends to contribute to preserving international order.

"We have been doing this for the past 36 years, these military exercises. But we never had, even once, used our acquired knowledge to fight another country. But for disaster and humanitarian purposes, we have done this many, many times," he said.

Lorenzana's views were shared by US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law, who observed that the exercises were staged regardless of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to the global health crisis COVID-19, Balikatan 2021 was scaled down both in numbers of events and participants.

About 225 US military personnel and 415 AFP personnel participated, all of whom strictly followed health and safety protocols.

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