Patricia Lourdes Viray (Philstar.com) – March 23, 2021 – 10:12am
MANILA, Philippines — The Chinese vessels seen in line formation near Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef off the coast of Palawan appear similar to purpose-built vessels of China’s maritime militia, an analyst said.
Andrew Erickson, a professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, noted that the 220 ships photographed in the coral reef in the West Philippine Sea look and operate like the steel-hulled vessels that lead the Sansha City Maritime Militia.
On Saturday, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Coast Guard confirmed that Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be part of China’s maritime militia, have been located on the reef on March 7.
“The NTF-WPS notes this circumstance as a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation,” the task force said.
China’s self-declared Sansha City claim administrative jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands, overlapping with the Philippines’ claims in the area.
Around the same time last year, Beijing established two new districts in the South China Sea under the jurisdiction of Sansha. The Department of Foreign Affairs then stressed that the Philippine government does not recognize Sansha City nor its constituent units.
Ships from Sansha City have been on rotational deployments to Chinese-claimed features in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, according to Erickson.
“Crewed by well-salaried full-time personnel recruited in part from former PLA ranks, they appear not to bother fishing – the better to focus on trolling for territory,” Erickson wrote on Foreign Policy.
He added that these ships have weapons lockers and loaded with “light arms” based on official photos from the Chinese government.
“If not properly countered at Whitsun Reef, or elsewhere, PAFMM vessels could support further territorial seizure akin to China’s gains at Scarborough Shoal in 2012,” Erickson said.
Malacañang, on the other hand, said the presence of Chinese maritime militia ships is unlikely to escalate into something similar to the Scarborough or Panatag Shoal standoff.
Less than a day after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. lodged a diplomatic protest over the Chinese fleet in the West Philippine Sea, the military confirmed that the ships are still present in the area.
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana confirmed that the Air Force spotted at least 183 vessels in the area following its patrol.
The military’s Western Command, based in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, deployed a fixed-wing aircraft to check the area on Monday morning.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called the presence of Chinese militia boats in the Julian Felipe Reef, which is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, an incursion and urged the Chinese to immediately recall the vessels.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila insisted that there is no maritime militia involved, claiming that the ships seen near Julian Felipe Reef are fishing vessels.
“It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged. Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation,” the Chinese Embassy said in a statement Monday night. (Click to Source)
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