MANILA - China's "continuing infringements" in Philippine territory despite "resolute protests" by Manila are "contrary" to its "commitments under international law" and an agreement it forged with Southeast Asian nations, the Philippines' foreign ministry said Tuesday.
"The Philippines calls on China to faithfully honor its obligations as a State Party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and to abide by the final and binding 12 July 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration," the ministry said.
Manila issued the statement a day after the Philippine military confirmed that 183 Chinese vessels remain at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea despite a diplomatic protest filed last Sunday by the Philippine government over their presence.
The vessels, initially reported to be around 220 in number, have been sighted as early as March 7 at the large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
"Julian Felipe Reef in the Kalayaan Island Group lies in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone," Manila's foreign ministry said.
"We reiterate that the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction," it added.
"The Philippines demands that China promptly withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets... and to direct its fishing vessels to desist from environmentally destructive activities."
The Chinese Embassy in Manila, in a statement on Monday, denied allegations the vessels are part of Beijing's militia, describing them as fishing vessels taking shelter due to “rough sea conditions.” It also insisted that the reef is part of their territory.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines is a member, signed in 2002 the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea.
It says, among others, that they will "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability."
A code of conduct currently being negotiated is envisioned to upgrade the DOC to manage tensions in the waters being claimed wholly or in part by China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
ASEAN and China completed the first reading of the proposed code between 2018 and 2019. It had been planned that the code would be mapped out by 2021, but the pandemic hindered negotiations among parties.
The United States earlier in the day said it stands by the Philippines, noting that the vessels' appearance was meant to “intimidate and threaten” the country and undermine regional stability.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte will discuss the issue with China's ambassador in Manila.
Duterte forged friendlier ties with China since assuming office in 2016, shelving the maritime disputes in favor of economic aid and investments from the world's second largest economy.
China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part, has been invalidated by the 2016 arbitral award.