MANILA — Senator Manny Pacquiao on Thursday urged the Chinese government to recall its maritime militia fleet still moored in Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, citing the importance of the two countries' friendship.
In a statement, Pacquiao said he backs Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana's appeal to Beijing ito pull out its maritime assets in the reef, also called Whitsun Reef, which falls under the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.
"Its militia fishing boats that have encroached in areas surrounding the [Julian Felipe Reef]... As a friend and neighbor, I appeal to the Chinese leadership to stop this creeping occupation and use your authority to disperse these Chinese fishermen," the senator said.
He added that China and the Philippines "must stand together" in finding a peaceful way to resolve the issue "that concerns the whole of Asia" through international laws such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Should Beijing withdraw its ships, the move will "show a neighborly gesture of mutual understanding and true friendship" according to Pacquiao.
At least 40 Chinese boats remained in the area as of March 29, according to a Philippine government task force.
"This matter on territorial claims... affects practically all nations in our continent. China can and will elevate itself as Asia’s unifying force if it starts to heed existing international laws including the UNCLOS," Pacquiao said.
"Instead of expanding and occupying disputed territories, China should sustain building its goodwill and friendship towards its neighboring nations so that our whole region can look up to it as one of the world's respectable global powers."
Aside from Pacquiao, senators Risa Hontiveros, Panfilo Lacson, and Richard Gordon also aired their concerns on China's incursion in the West Philippine Sea, and said the country needs the help of its allies and the international community to send a stronger statement against it.
PH IN TALKS WITH US ON MUTUAL DEFENSE
The Department of National Defense, meanwhile, said it is in "continued talks" with the United States, the country's long-time ally, on the matter of mutual defense.
The US, while no party in the South China Sea dispute, has been pushing for freedom of navigation in the vital trading route. It has held patrols and drills in the area.
In a statement, the defense department said the US admonishes China's "use of force" against the Philippines' public vessels and aircraft.
"[This] is an additional affirmation of the long-standing partnership between our two countries. This also demonstrates the strength of our alliance and mutual commitment to promote the rules-based
international order," said defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong.
The Philippines and US, he said, are committed with its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty "so that neither stands alone in these issues involving the two states' inherent right of self-defense, individually and collectively."
The Philippines and US signed a pact in 1951, which binds both countries to aid each other in the event of foreign aggression.
All options, meanwhile, remain open to manage the situation, he pointed out. This includes leveraging the country's partnership with the US.
"As the situation in the West Philippine Sea evolves... we remain committed to protecting and defending our national interests, while upholding the security and stability in the region through peaceful and rules-based approach," Andolong said in the statement.
Lingering Chinese ships in the area have led the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a fresh diplomatic protest on Wednesday, with its chief Teodoro Locsin, Jr. vowing to do so every day until the last Chinese ship is gone from the reef.
Locsin also said he already considered filing a "demarche" or a political step, as China claimed the Julian Felipe reef as part of its territory.