MANILA - Chinese fishing, maritime and navy vessels continue to sail in Philippine-claimed waters and within the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, the chief of the Philippine military said Wednesday.
"There is still presence of Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and fisheries law enforcement vessels in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal and also in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), and in other areas," Gen. Emmanuel Bautista said in a foreign correspondents press forum.
"There are...Chinese maritime surveillance and even PLA [People's Liberation Army] Navy vessels in the contested areas. There is also presence of Vietnamese (fishermen) in some of the contested areas," he added.
China has been strongly asserting its claim over territories in the South China Sea over the last three years, prompting the Philippines to seek arbitration from the United Nations early this year for the resolution of the territorial dispute.
Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have competing claims over areas in the Spratly islands in the South China Sea which is believed to have substantial deposits of oil and gas, apart from its rich marine resources.
Bautista said China maintains two to five combined maritime surveillance and People's Liberation Army Navy vessels in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal north of the Spratlys and 124 nautical miles west of the Philippine main island Luzon, and at Second Thomas Shoal.
The marine resources-rich Scarborough shoal is virtually under Chinese control after Philippine personnel left the area to end a standoff that began in April last year.
The Second Thomas Shoal, on the other hand, is being guarded by Philippine troops aboard a World War II-vintage landing ship that was grounded in the area in 1999.
The shoal is nearest to the Philippine island province Palawan among nine Philippine-occupied features in the Spratlys, and the closest to the Chinese-occupied and PLA Navy's most active base at Mischief Reef.
China occupies and has fortified seven features in the South China Sea, including Mischief Reef.
A classified Philippine government document seen recently by Kyodo News noted China's increased presence and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, recording 24 incidents during the period 2010-2012, compared to only seven for 1995-2009.
It also bared China's patrols in the disputed areas and continuing fishing activities all being done "under the watchful eyes of Chinese government vessels."
Bautista said Philippine troops assigned in the Philippine-occupied features just monitor the presence of the foreign vessels and "avoid confrontation."
"We have lodged protests on the presence of these vessels, and precisely that is why we have taken this to the arbitral tribunal for a resolution. That is the response of the government -- to bring it to the appropriate international body to resolve this issue in a peaceful manner abiding by the rule of law," he said.
Bautista said the Philippine military hopes to start fully focusing on protecting the country's territory within the next three years once it has concluded its internal security operations, which deal with a decades-old communist threat, terrorism and other domestic threats.
Part of the strategy, aside from modernizing equipment for aerial and maritime defense, is to welcome U.S. troops for an increased rotational presence in the Philippines as well as their equipment in consonance with the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, he said.
The United States is the Philippines' only defense treaty ally and U.S. forces continue to be present in the country under a Visiting Forces Agreement.
"Relative to China, we are such a small country, such a poorer country compared to China. And that is why we are trying to leverage our alliances with our friends, with our allies to collectively create that security environment to prevent any aggression. That is part of deterrence," Bautista said.
"While we do not have the wherewithal capability to defend our territory by ourselves, we partner with others to collectively assure the security of our region," he added.
The Philippines and United States are in negotiations for a planned increased U.S. force rotational presence in the country.