MANILA— The Philippine military on Thursday said its chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana has ordered the deployment of more Navy ships to the West Philippine Sea to beef up the country's maritime sovereignty patrols in the area, but not in the reef where Chinese militia ships were seen to avoid confrontation.
The deployment of more Navy ships came as China's maritime militia fleet remained at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef), despite mounting calls from the international community to have it recalled.
The reef is also within the Philippine EEZ and continental shelf, over which the country owns exclusive right to use resources, including fish, oil and natural gas.
The West Philippine Sea covers the country's EEZ in the disputed South China Sea, where China lays expansive claims.
"By increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of [our] strong, unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment, ensure they enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing grounds which is their source of livelihood," the military said.
The AFP said they cannot deploy their Navy ships to the reef because China's maritime militia vessels were supposedly considered civilian in nature.
To send a warship could be seen as antagonistic and might trigger China to send its own more powerful Navy, they pointed out.
The AFP, however, added that they already met with their Chinese counterparts on Wednesday conveying “the Defense Secretary’s demand for the vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef where 183 vessels were sighted per AFP’s recent aerial patrol.”
"China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) representatives reiterated their government’s assurance that those ships were not manned by militia and that those were constrained to seek shelter in the area when inclement weather hampered their fishing activity,” the military explained.
There was no mention, however, whether the ships would leave once weather improves.
Photos from Philippine Coast Guard on March 7 and the Armed Forces on March 23 showed that the weather on Julian Felipe Reef was sunny with little cloud cover.
China was also quoted as saying it was “committed to [be] available to discuss and explain any future issues involving the PLA.”
The United States, Japan, Australia, and Canada have voiced deep concern over the presence of the militia vessels, describing the move as a threat to regional and global stability.
Think tank Philippine Council on Foreign Relations earlier said that China's intrusion to the country's EEZ is a "serious concern" not only to the Southeast Asian region but to the whole world.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed a diplomatic protest on the matter, as Malacañang hoped that friendlier ties with China would help solve the situation.
The incursion came to light just as the Philippines received more COVID-19 vaccine donations from China, with retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio saying such move was meant to "soften the blow" of China's seizure of parts of Philippine territory.
- Report from Chiara Zambrano