'Unsettling to see': Hundreds of Chinese vessels swarm Gaven Reef, Chigua Reef

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 03 2021 09:48 PM | Updated as of Apr 04 2021 11:34 AM

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It's understandable why Filipinos have taken such a tone of concern and tone of defiance against China over the West Philippine Sea. 

Nothing less than a swarm of Chinese vessels have surrounded multiple reefs in the disputed waters, particularly in areas that are close to the artificial islands built by China. 

One particular reef was quite unsettling to see — the Gaven (Burgos) Reef. 

Around it, the ABS-CBN News team spotted a hundred ships. Similar formations were seen in the Julian Felipe Reef just a few weeks ago. But in Gaven Reef, instead of a long phalanx of ships, there were several groups of 6 to 8 ships scattered in the area. 

At Chigua Reef, which is part of the Union Banks and on the other side of Julian Felipe Reef, Chinese ships were also scattered. Groups of big commercial fishing ships were also tied together. 

There was no swarm of ships at Pag-asa Island, but a China Coast Guard ship and four other Chinese fishing vessels, which Philippine authorities believe are militia ships, were reportedly blocking locals from the four sandbars that used to be the common Filipino fishing grounds in Pag-asa.

Locals said they can no longer approach and fish in these areas as that would mean they would have to confront those large commercial-type vessels and the Chinese Coast Guard. 

Another sight worth noting, and cause for concern for the Philippine government, is still the Julian Felipe Reef. 

Most definitely, the Chinese fishing vessels did not leave the area. If anything, the long formation of ships was just broken apart. There were far less ships but they were definitely still anchored in the area and around Julian Felipe Reef itself. 

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense have tried to drum up attention, not just locally but also internationally, to call out China and have it pull out these vessels. 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Saturday also lambasted China as the maritime militia continued to stay in Philippine waters despite calls for them to leave. He also said that Beijing's envoy in the Philippines has some explaining to do. 

But China's embassy in Manila said the reef, which the superpower claims as part of its Nansha Islands, "has been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years." 

"The Chinese fishermen have been fishing in the waters for their livelihood every year. It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities," it said in a statement on Saturday.

"China is committed to safeguarding peace and stability in the waters and we hope that authorities concerned would make constructive efforts and avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions," the embassy added. 

Philippine authorities however observed that the Chinese vessels do not seem to be involved in fishing activity. 

China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, which the West Philippine Sea is a part of, has been invalidated by an international arbitral tribunal in 2016. 

Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned that Filipinos should be "very wary" of what's happening at the Julian Felipe Reef as it may be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base, like China did on Mischief Reef in 1995.

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