MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte will discuss with China's envoy in the Philippines the presence of some 200 Chinese boats at the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, Malacañang said on Tuesday.
"Uulitin ko lang po ang sinabi kahapon ni Presidente. Kakausapin niya ang Chinese Ambassador tungkol sa isyung ito," said Palace spokesman Harry Roque without mentioning a date.
"At ang sabi naman niya, wala namang hindi napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan," he said in a press briefing.
(I will repeat what the President said yesterday. He will talk to the Chinese Ambassador about this issue. And he said there is nothing friends cannot talk out.)
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.
Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said 183 vessels were seen on Monday morning in the area that China calls Niu'e Jiao and claims to be part of its Nansha Undao.
Julian Felipe Reef is a 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.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, which the West Philippine Sea is a part of, despite an international tribunal invalidating it in a landmark ruling in 2016. It has built islands in the disputed waters in recent years, putting air strips on some of them.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on China to stop the "incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory."
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.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila, in a statement, 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, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei all claim parts of the South China 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.
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