MANILA — A photo released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on Thursday showed 12 Chinese vessels around the eastern part of Escoda (Sabina) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
The photo was taken during an aerial patrol on Nov. 23, according to the AFP Western Command (Wescom).
It said similar ships were also spotted in the western part of the shoal.
Similar Chinese vessels were also seen in the same area on Dec. 5, the Wescom added.
Last week, Wescom reported that several Chinese vessels have been moving much closer to Palawan in recent months.
Wescom chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos confirmed to ABS-CBN News the “swarming” presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
“Based on our monitoring, there are numerous Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea right now,” Carlos told ABS-CBN News in a Viber message last Thursday, Dec. 8.
These are “mostly fishing vessels,” he said.
Carlos said the military saw the vessels near Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal, which are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“They usually stay near their occupied features in the West Philippine Sea. But we also noted their presence near Pag-asa Island,” the military official said.
“That (fishing) is what they claim to be doing,” he added.
Iroquois Reef is located 237 kilometers from Rizal town in Palawan, while Sabina Shoal is located 135 kilometers from mainland Palawan. Carlos said an average of 20 Chinese vessels were monitored in each area in the past couple of months.
The swarming happened weeks after the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing after the China Coast Guard reportedly seized rocket debris that the Philippine Navy had recovered and towed.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have overlapping claims to parts of it.
Of all the claimants to the South China Sea, Beijing has in recent years pressed its stance most aggressively. Hundreds of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels prowl the waters, swarming reefs, harassing and attacking fishing and other boats, and interfering in oil and gas exploration as well as scientific research.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing flared last year after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected at Julian Felipe Reef in the Spratlys.
Last November, Chinese coastguard ships fired water cannon at Philippine boats delivering supplies to marines at Ayungin Shoal in the same archipelago.
Kabataan. Rep. Raul Manuel, together with fellow lawmakers Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas and House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro, slammed the latest incursions of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
"Epekto na ito ng malamyang pagtugon ng pamahalaan sa matagal nang incursion ng China sa ating teritoryo. Dati pa may ginagawa na ang China na artificial islands," said Kabataan Rep Raul Manuel in a press conference.
"Na-threathen na ang livelihood ng ating mangingisda... Tutol tayo sa ginagawa ng China at dapat may mas matapang na stance ang ating national government," he also said.
(This is the effect of the government's feeble response to China's long-standing incursion into our territory. China has been building artificial islands before. The livelihood of our fishermen has been threatened... We are against what China is doing and our national government should have a bolder stance.)
— With a report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse