‘Those ships are not fishing’: Lorenzana doubts China yarn on vessels in PH EEZ
MANILA, Philippines—Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana cast doubt on China’s claim that Chinese vessels anchored near Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea were fishing boats.
“That is their standard line but those ships are not fishing,” Lorenzana told INQUIRER.net on Thursday (March 25).
“And there are 183 to 220 of them? If it’s true that they are sheltering from the elements, that area is open sea and not conducive to shelter,” he said.
“Why are they lashed together? I don’t know if lashing together ships in open turbulent seas is a good idea as they would be colliding with each other,” he said, commenting on the remarks of Chinese officials that the vessels were not part of a maritime militia but fishing vessels taking shelter from “rough sea conditions.”
The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, the country’s weather forecast agency, had projected no storm and hot weather for the country after declaring the start of the dry season.
Lorenzana has become familiar with the nature of Chinese vessels loitering in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, which is at the doorsteps of the Philippines. The incursion of Chinese vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone had been the subject of diplomatic protests by the Philippine government in the past.
Determining the real character of the Chinese militia vessels had been tricky. Most pose as fishing vessels, but they are not actually fishing. Militias are being used to aggressively enforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, including West Philippine Sea, without sparking overt war. Formally, they are part of China’s armed forces.
The tactic is referred to by security experts as “gray zone strategy,” in which civilian-looking vessels are used by China “to avoid direct responsibility by arguing that these are not government vessels.”
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a West Philippine Sea expert, said that the parking of Chinese vessels at the reef could be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base, just like what happened in Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995.
As of Monday (March 22), the Philippine military counted at least 183 Chinese militia vessels on the boomerang-shaped reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone from 220 vessels reported by the Philippine Coast Guard last March 7.
The National Task Force West Philippine Sea earlier said the boats were likely manned Chinese maritime militia vessels.
The weather has been fair across the country in recent weeks, adding suspicions to China’s claim that the vessels simply took shelter in the area.
“Chinese fishing vessels take shelter near Niu’e Jiao due to rough sea conditions,” the Chinese embassy in Manila said, using the name that China gave the reef as if to claim ownership of it.
“It has been normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no maritime militia as alleged,” said the statement which did not deny that China was claiming ownership of the area.
The vessels were neatly lined up, which was unusual if there was indeed bad weather, said a senior Navy officer who is knowledgeable on the West Philippine Sea, as he commented on aerial photos released by the military.
“During inclement weather, ships will not nest (side by side) but anchor individually so they won’t bump against each other or collide,” the officer told INQUIRER.net.
“They were in nest formation to signify an intent to stay long as they can support each other” with generators, water and other supplies, the officer said. “Plus water current is not pulling strong if the vessels are close to each other,” he added.
At his confirmation hearing in the Commission on Appointments on Wednesday (March 24), Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the military was assessing the formation of the vessels. He likened it to a “phalanx” or a military formation used during battle.
“We are trying to assess why they did such kind of formation, because they were lined up in layers as if they were forming like a phalanx,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, AFP officials met with China’s military attache to discuss the presence of the Chinese vessels at the reef.
Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson, said the Philippine side “conveyed the demand of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for the vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef.”
Arevalo cited the AFP aerial patrol report saying at least 183 Chinese vessels had been seen in the area.
But AFP counterparts in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, China’s armed forces, “reiterated their government’s assurance that those ships were not manned by militia,” Arevalo said quoting the Chinese officials at the meeting.
The vessels, Arevalo cited the Chinese officials as saying, “were constrained to seek shelter in the area when inclement weather hampered their fishing activity.”
Arevalo said Sobejana has ordered the deployment of more Philippine Navy ships to boost maritime sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
The military’s Western Command, he said, will serve as the government’s “eyes and ears” in the area.
What are friends for?
In Malacanang, an official said the Duterte administration expected the vessels to eventually leave when the weather improves “in the spirit of friendship” between the Philippines and China. There has been no bad weather in the area, though.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Thursday (March 25) said President Rodrigo Duterte already met with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to discuss the presence of the vessels.
The ambassador reiterated that the Chinese ships were seeking refuge from bad weather and were not part of Chinese militia.
“There’s no controversy because they’re not insisting in staying there,” Roque said of China’s response.
“In the spirit of friendship, it is hoped that they will not remain there,” he said.
Duterte has long been criticized for sweeping under the rug the sea dispute with China and setting aside the arbitration ruling that declared China’s claims in South China Sea, including West Philippine Sea, to be baseless and without evidence.
The Duterte administration had hoped to get investments and assistance from China in exchange. But there have been no major investments in the Philippines by Chinese companies, whether state-owned or private. The latest assistance from China came in the form of 1 million coronavirus vaccines made by the Chinese company Sinovac from which the Philippines is buying millions of doses.
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