MANILA - The presence of Chinese ships in Philippine waters, whether military or fishing vessels, is a violation of international law, a maritime expert said Tuesday.
The Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest against China over reports that more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels were sighted moored in the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin earlier said.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila, however, said the boats were fishing vessels and maintained the waters were part of its island group Nansha Qundao.
Julian Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef is only 175 nautical miles away from Palawan and is "clearly within" the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
"Kahit man totoo 'yun na fishermen, lalo po nilang inaamin na nandoon sila, labag sa batas," he told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
(Even if those really were fishermen, they admit they were there, it's against the law.)
"At inaamin nila na nagconduct sila ng fishing operation sa loob ng ating exclusive economic zone, so patuloy pa rin ang paglabag nila sa ating batas at sa international law."
(They also admitted they conducted fishing operations inside our exclusive economic zone, so this is a continuous violation of our laws and international law.)
The supposed fishing operations also violate the Hague's ruling in 2016 that invalidated China's vast claims in the disputed South China Sea, he added.
The Chinese Embassy's spokesperson on Monday said the Chinese fishing vessels recently took shelter near Niu’e Jiao, part of its island group, due to "rough sea conditions."
"It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged," it said.
"Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner."
Malacañang said friends can talk everything out in response to the presence of some 200 Chinese boats.
"Meron po tayong malapit na pagkakaibigan... Lahat naman po napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan at magkapitbahay," Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
(We have a close friendship. Friends and neighbors can talk everything out.)