Manila summons Chinese envoy over vessels in disputed waters

MANILA on Monday summoned China’s ambassador to convey its “utmost displeasure” over the continued presence of Chinese militia vessels in a Philippine-claimed reef in the South China Sea.

Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe, is within its exclusive economic zone, Foreign Affairs acting Undersecretary Elizabeth P. Buensuceso had told Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The continuing presence of Chinese vessels around the reef is a source of regional tension,” it added.

Ms. Buensuceso had also cited a United Nations arbitral ruling in 2016 favoring the Philippines and rejecting China’s claim to more than 80% of the disputed waterway based on a 1940s map.

The Chinese embassy was reminded of “proper decorum and manners in the conduct of their duties as guests of the Philippines” after it cautioned Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana against issuing “unprofessional remarks,” DFA said.

“Both sides affirmed the use of peaceful settlement of disputes in addressing their differences on the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea issue,” it added.

“In closing, the DFA reiterated the firm demand of the Philippines that China ensure the immediate departure of all its vessels from the area of Juan Felipe reef and other maritime zones of the Philippines,” it said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. tweeted on Tuesday there were only nine Chinese ships left, based on a report by a national task force.

The Philippines last month filed a diplomatic protest against China after the vessels moored at Whitsun Reef. The Chinese Embassy said the reef is part of its territory and the vessels had taken shelter due to rough sea conditions.

Mr. Lorenzana on April 3 urged the remaining 44 Chinese vessels to leave. He said the Chinese had no reason to stay there since the weather had improved.

The Chinese Embassy reiterated the reef is part of China’s Nansha Island, adding that the waters around the reef had been “a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years.”

It also said it hopes authorities would make constructive efforts and avoid “unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”

Mr. Lorenzana on Sunday discussed the situation in the South China Sea and regional security developments with his US counterpart on Sunday, his spokesman said.

He and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III are both looking forward to war games that got canceled last year because of a coronavirus pandemic, military spokesman Arsenio R. Andolong said.

During the teleconference, Mr. Austin also reiterated the importance of the visiting forces agreement “and hopes that it would be continued.” Mr. Lorenzana committed to discuss the matter with President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Meanwhile, the Philippines needs the support of its allies including the United States in keeping China’s activities in the South China Sea in check, said Collin Koh, a research fellow from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

“It is undeniable… that American support will be vital,” he told an online news briefing. “Let the aggressor be aware that there were attempts undertaken to capture evidence that could be used subsequently for any follow on political or legal recourse.”

“We’re not talking about Americans providing escorts themselves but providing air cover, providing maritime awareness data, and looking around somewhere could actually be a good way to remind the Chinese that there will be potential consequences if they escalate,” he added.

At the same forum, Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said the government should “rethink” its alliances.

“We must be consistent and firm in standing up for our national interests,” she said. “We should hold China accountable for the damage she has done to fragile marine ecosystems within our exclusive economic zone.” — Vann Marlo M. Villegas