After several weeks of filing daily diplomatic complaints, the Philippine’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) this week summoned Beijing’s ambassador to discuss the “illegal lingering presence” of Chinese ships in areas of the South China Sea claimed by Manila.
Foreign Undersecretary Elizabeth Buensuceso met Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian at the Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday, according to DFA, and repeated Manila’s demand that Beijing withdraw the fleets of vessels. Since late March, the ships have been hanging around disputed areas in the Spratly Islands, particularly around Whitsun Reef, a low-tide elevation that lies around 175 nautical miles from Palawan, the Philippines westernmost island.
“The DFA expressed displeasure over the illegal lingering presence of Chinese in Julian Felipe Reef,” the DFA said, using the Filipino name for Whitsun Reef. “The continuing presence of Chinese vessels around the reef is a source of regional tension.”
In her meeting with the Chinese envoy, Buensuceso also cited a 2016 ruling in an international arbitration case the Philippines brought against China, which ruled against China’s vast, looping “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea and affirmed most of Manila’s claims.
Since April 5, when the DFA stated that it “strongly deplore[d]” the Chinese actions, the Philippines has filed a daily diplomatic protest about the vessels, emphasizing both the 2016 arbritral ruling and the fact that the reef lies well within its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an internationally recognized area in which it has the exclusive right to exploit oil, gas, fisheries, and other resources.
Beijing has claimed in return that the ships are merely sheltering from inclement weather and that in any event, the waters in which they are sailing constitute China’s “traditional fishing grounds.”
The summons of Ambassador Huang came as a Philippines government task force said that military patrols over the weekend had spotted hundreds of Chinese maritime militia vessels also “lingering” in different Philippine-claimed areas of the Spratlys.
According to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (as Manila terms its portion of the South China Sea), government patrols spotted an estimated 240 Chinese ships crewed by militia in Philippine waters earlier this week, close to both Philippine-occupied features and reefs on which China has built massive artificial islands. (The Philippines Coast Guard has just published some photos from the patrols, which can be seen here.)
The task force also confirmed the presence of Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and Houbei class missile warships within the Philippines EEZ. The latter were the ships that last week reportedly chased a civilian boat carrying a team of journalists from the Philippines’ ABS-CBN network, forcing them to return to Palawan.
In a statement, the task force claimed that the presence of Chinese naval warships, CCG vessels, and Chinese maritime militia ships in the area was “prejudicial to the peace and security of the region.”
“The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea, and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the EEZ,” it said.
With Beijing continuing to appear impassive in the face of the deluge of diplomatic protests from Manila, there is every chance that the Chinese vessels’ presence in the Spratlys, barring a convincing show of solidarity from sympathetic powers in the region, could drag on for some time.