MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A Philippine government task force watching over the country's western waters reported on Wednesday (May 12) that Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels were back inside the West Philippine Sea and the country's 370km exclusive economic zone (EEZ), this time there were more of them.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) also reported that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) again drove away Chinese ships from the Escoda (Sabina) Shoal off Palawan province.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., chair of the NTF-WPS, said a maritime patrol recorded on May 9 the presence of at least 287 CMM vessels "scattered" over various maritime features covered by Palawan's Kalayaan municipality and other parts of the country's EEZ.
These were more than the 220 CMM vessels that had swarmed the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in March and then later dispersed to other parts of the West Philippine Sea. The presence of the Chinese vessels then had triggered several diplomatic protests against Chinese incursions into Philippine waters.
"Bigger groupings of CMMs were sighted at the artificial islands of China while some were observed near islands occupied by the Philippines," Esperon said.
The Chinese had built artificial islands on seven reefs in the South China Sea, several inside the country's EEZ, including their biggest at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, close to Palawan.
According to Esperon, the Chinese vessels included a CMM ship close to Philippine-held Lawak (Nanshan) Island; 11 near Recto (Reed) Bank; and one CMM ship and a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ship off the Philippine-held Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
There also were 14 CMM vessels and a CCG ship near Pag-asa, the biggest island occupied by Filipinos in the Kalayaan Island Group; two CMM vessels off Panata Island (Lankiam Cay); and 34 CMM ships at Julian Felipe, which is part of the Pagkakaisa (Union) banks.
The task force also reported an average of four CCG vessels daily at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal), also called Panatag Shoal, from May 3 to May 10.
"Despite China's illegal unilateral 'fishing ban' covering its fishing vessels in waters north of 12 degrees latitude in the South China Sea, from May 1 to Aug 16, 2021, two CMMs were nonetheless observed harvesting shells inside the lagoon of the [Bajo de Masinloc]," Esperon said.
An average of 10 Filipino fishing boats have also been seen inside the lagoon from May 7 to May 9. The NTF-WPS has encouraged Filipinos to fish in the area and ignore the Chinese fishing ban.
The PCG and BFAR drove three CMM ships away from Sabina on May 7 and 8 as they had done on April 27 and 29.
Roque draws fire
Without mentioning Harry Roque by name, Esperon debunked the presidential spokesperson's claims earlier this week that Julian Felipe was located beyond the Philippine EEZ, saying it was 324km from Bataraza, Palawan.
"It is part of Philippine territory inasmuch as it is located within the overlapping [22-KILOMETER]territorial seas of McKennan (Chigua) Reef and of another possible high-tide feature, Grierson (Sin Cowe East) Reef, also our territories under the Municipality of Kalayaan," he said.
McKennan, however, is occupied by China while Grierson is occupied by Vietnam.
Two senators castigated Roque for saying that Julian Felipe "is way out there … and is not even in our EEZ." Besides, Roque added, the Philippines "had never been in possession of that area.''
Senator Francis Pangilinan was prompted to ask whether Roque was "getting his salary from China?''
Senator Risa Hontiveros said it was irresponsible for the president's spokesperson to make such a claim.
"Why is it that instead of fortifying our claim on our country's territories, Malacañang seems bent on giving them away?'' she said.
But Roque on Tuesday explained that "all we're saying is we're never in possession of that area."
'Only one voice'
"This issue is being blown out of proportion,'' he said, adding that the Philippines was just a claimant to the reef along with Vietnam and China. But he added that it would be in the country's interest to "pursue our claim.''
Hontiveros said Roque's statements ran counter to the protests filed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
On Tuesday night, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. declared on Twitter: "There is only one voice on what's ours: mine. Period. Not even the military has any say. I speak for the President on this subject."
Pangilinan said only China would be amused by the disagreement in the Duterte Cabinet on the handling of the sea dispute.
"This only shows no one is clearly in charge. This is no longer something new, as each one tends to have his or her own strategy," he said.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said it was unwise to debate on the West Philippine Sea at this time.
"[IT] merely will manifest to the world that we are not united and we do not know what we are doing," he said in a statement.
"My humble suggestion is for this government to listen to what the Filipinos are saying," he said.
Roque challenged Del Rosario and Vice-President Leni Robredo to debate with him after President Rodrigo Duterte backed out of a debate with retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, but Del Rosario rejected it, saying it was "not the best way to spend our time."
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said would only listen to Locsin on this matter.
Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, chair of the foreign relations committee, suggested that the entire executive department follow a DFA "script" on the dispute with China.
"Then [IT CAN]choose talking heads carefully and limit them. Then form an elite team which will educate 'all of us' about the details of the WPS issues," he said in a tweet.