MANILA - China has said it does not plan to maintain a permanent presence at Julian Felipe Reef, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, despite several of its maritime militia vessels still remaining in the area.
The reef in the West Philippine Sea is in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) within the South China Sea, 90 percent of which China claims as its own despite a July 2016 UN tribunal ruling invalidating its expansive claim.
“I believe I've just made it very clear. China has no such plan,” Zhao said when asked by a journalist during his April 6 regular press conference in Beijing on whether China wants to establish a permanent presence in the area.
He added that he was “not aware” of China building “illegal structures” on the features of Union Banks.
Philippine authorities earlier this week conducted maritime patrols amid the presence of several Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea. The inspection revealed that Beijing's artificial islands in the disputed waters are becoming increasingly developed and militarized.
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.
The Chinese official, however, reiterated his country’s claim that the reef, which they called as Niu'e Jiao, is part of China’s Nansha Islands and that the 2016 arbitral ruling on the South China Sea is “illegal, null, and void.”
“China neither accepts nor recognizes the award, and we firmly oppose any claims or actions based on the award,” he said.
'IMPORTANT FISHING GROUND'
Zhao also claimed the area has “always been an important fishing ground and shelter for Chinese fishermen,” adding it is “normal… for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter during rough sea conditions.”
He urged the Philippines to “immediately stop wanton hype-up, and avoid casting negative influence on bilateral relations and the overall peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
“The Philippines attempts to use an illegal, null and void award to negate China's sovereignty, rights and interests, negate Chinese fishermen's fishing history and rights in their traditional fishing grounds in the Nansha Islands which have been continued for as long as a thousand of years. This is a violation of international law including the UN Charter and UNCLOS. It is utterly unacceptable,” he claimed.
“We hope the Philippines will look at this objectively and correctly, immediately stop wanton hype-up, and avoid casting negative influence on bilateral relations and the overall peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Beijing also continues to deny the presence of its maritime militia in the area.
At least 40 Chinese vessels remained in the reef as of Saturday, according to Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana.
“I just elaborated on China's position. It is a customary practice running over a thousand years for Chinese fishing boats to work and shelter in relevant waters. I don't know why relevant sides refer to the Chinese fishermen as ‘maritime militia,’” Zhao claimed.
“It shows malicious intent driven by ulterior motives. But since certain countries have defined what's happening in Xinjiang as ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’, this came as no surprise. Such clumsy ploys won't work as the whole world can see through them,” he added.
The lingering presence of Beijing’s fleet led the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a fresh diplomatic protest Wednesday, with its chief Teodoro Locsin, Jr. vowing to do so every day until the last Chinese ship is gone from the reef.
Analysts and several countries earlier warned China of its incursions in the West Philippine Sea, as it could threaten regional stability.
The United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom were among those countries that voiced their concerns on the matter.
- Reports from Willard Cheng and Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News