MANILA (UPDATE) — Friends can talk everything out, Malacañang said on Monday, in response to the presence of some 200 Chinese boats in the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
Authorities said the Philippine Coast Guard had reported that about 220 vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were seen moored at the reef on March 7.
On Monday, a day after Manila filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing over the incident, the country's military chief said the boats are still in the area which is within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf.
Asked if he believed that the incident could intensify to a standoff, Palace spokesman Harry Roque said, "I don't think so."
"Meron po tayong malapit na pagkakaibigan," Roque said in a press briefing. "Lahat naman po napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan at magkapitbahay."
(We have a close friendship. Friends and neighbors can talk everything out.)
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had said he "fired off" a diplomatic protest against the Chinese flotilla, while Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on China to "stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory."
"Hintayin po muna natin kung anong isasagot ng Tsina. Nagkaroon ng protesta. Kinakailangan namang magbigay sila ng kasagutan," said Roque, in response to a question on what else the Philippines would do.
(Let us wait first what China would say. There was a protest. They need to give an answer.)
Chinese boats have fished near the reef, which Beijing calls Niu'e Jiao, for a long time, and recently, some have been sheltering in the area due to sea conditions, said China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Monday.
"I think this is very normal, and (we) hope all sides can view this rationally," she said at a daily news conference.
The Chinese embassy in Manila denied the presence of an alleged Chinese maritime militia and said the reef is "part of China's Nansha Qundao."
"Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation," said the embassy, adding it hoped the issue could be handled "in an objective and rational manner."
On orders of the Philippines armed forces chief, an aircraft was dispatched on Monday morning to the area to determine the latest situation, said military spokesman Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
"Nandun pa at binibilang naming mabuti. At mamaya-maya, we will share with you our take on their presence," Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, AFP chief of staff, told reporters.
(They are still there and we are counting them properly. Later, we will share with you our take on their presence.)
"The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will not renege from our commitment to protect and defend our maritime interest within the bounds of the law," Arevalo said.
The vessels are fishing boats believed to be manned by Chinese military-trained personnel, according to Philippines security officials.
The vessels' presence in the area raises concern about overfishing and the destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safe navigation, a Philippine cross-government task force said late on Saturday.
Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario commended the government's actions, branding the "recent Chinese action" as consistent with Beijing's "blatant bullying" over decades against its neighbors in the South China Sea.
Del Rosario said Manila should consider summoning Beijing's ambassador "to ask why we should not consider this Chinese action... to be an act of unilateral aggression against the territorial integrity of our country."
"We should seek consultation with our security partners like the US, EU, UK, Australia and Japan on how to move forward with this recent act of Chinese aggression," he added.
An international tribunal invalidated China's claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing does not recognize the ruling. China has built islands in the disputed waters in recent years, putting air strips on some of them.
Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei all claim parts of the sea.
In January, the Philippines protested against a new Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a "threat of war".
The United States has repeatedly denounced what it called China's attempts to bully neighbors with competing interests, while Beijing has criticized Washington for what it calls interference in its internal affairs.
Juan Felipe (Whitsun) Reef is described as "a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs".
The Philippine task force vowed to continue "to peacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives on environmental protection, food security and freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte had forged closer relations with China when he assumed office in 2016, deciding to temporarily shelve the
South China Sea disputes in favor of economic aid and investments from the world's second largest economy.
— With a report from Reuters