MANILA (UPDATE) - Nine Chinese fishing vessels remain in Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, the country's national security adviser said Wednesday, amid tensions between the Philippines and China over the disputed area.
More than 240 Chinese ships were reported last month near the reef, which is part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, forcing Manila to fire diplomatic protests against Beijing. Manila has vowed to continue doing so until Beijing's ships have left the area.
"As of the latest count, meron pa ring 9 na (there are still 9) Chinese fishing vessel sa (in) Julian Felipe Reef," National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
Meanwhile, five Chinese Coast Guard vessels remain in the country's territorial waters as of April 22, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea earlier said.
Three Chinese Coast Guard ships remain in Bajo de Masinloc, where there are 12 Filipino fishing boats, Esperon said.
"Hindi naman sila ginagalaw (They're not being bothered)," he said.
"We have deployed more of our Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries, and maritime vessels to continue patrolling our area so our fishermen will have more confidence."
The Philippines must improve its 9 detachments in the Kalayaan Island Group, Esperon said following calls from former top government officials to reclaim islands that Beijing had seized from Manila.
"Ang dapat gawin natin ngayon (That's what we should do now), we must improve our 9 detachments, fortify them, improve the living conditions of our troops and develop our defense capability," he said.
"Hindi mo magagawa yan nang basta-basta. Kailangan din ng ilang taon, siguro bigyan natin ng 5 hanggang 10 taon na magmodernize ka para meron kang capability, hindi yung pakikipag-giyera ang iisipin mo."
(You can't just do it. You need several years, maybe 5 to 10 years of modernization so you have capability. You should not just think of going to war.)
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin had on Monday issued an expletive-laden tweet telling China to get out of its maritime territory. He has since issued an apology, while China said a "certain individual" from the Philippine side should "mind basic manners."
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said the Philippines holds a "debt of gratitude" for Chinese aid, but its territorial waters "cannot be bargained."
A UN-backed arbitration court had in 2016 ruled that China's sweeping claims over almost the entire sea have no legal basis, but Beijing continues to shun the ruling, instead ramping up militarization and island-building activities.