Chinese vessels still in Spratlys, says task force

PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/NATIONAL TASK FORCE-WEST PHILIPPINE SEA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

HUNDREDS of Chinese militia vessels were still scattered around the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, both within and outside Manila’s exclusive economic zone, according to a Philippine task force.

In a statement, the task force said 287 Chinese ships were still in Philippine waters, many of them spotted near artificial islands built by China, while some were near islands occupied by Manila, based on patrols made on May 9.

Two Houbei class missile warships were also near Mischief Reef, while two Vietnamese logistics ships and a VN Coast Guard vessel were at Grierson Reef, it said.

Thirty-four Chinese ships also remained at Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines also claims.

“We reiterate that the Philippines shall continue to defend its sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea,” the task force said, referring to areas of the waterway within the country’s exclusive economic zone. The Southeast Asian nation will not “yield an inch of our territory.”

It said Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe, is within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and is “part of Philippine territory.”

Presidential spokesman Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. on Tuesday said the reef is outside the country’s ecozone and had never been possessed by it.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. on Tuesday said he alone should speak for President Rodrigo R. Duterte on foreign policy matters including the sea dispute with China.

“There is only one voice on what’s ours: mine. Period,” he tweeted. “Not even the military has any say. I speak for the President on this subject.”

Mr. Roque earlier said it was not OK for China to militarize the South China Sea, “but what can we do?”

“What can we do? Let’s try this: Drop the subject and leave it entirely to the Department of Foreign Affairs under me, the only expert on the subject bar none,” Mr. Locsin said.

“I’ve known China since 1967,” he said. “Even the military has nothing to do with foreign affairs.”

Mr. Locsin has filed several diplomatic protests against China over the presence of its ships in the area.

This month, he minced no words in telling the Chinese to get out of Philippine waters in the South China Sea, cussing at its neighbor for failing to reciprocate its goodwill.

Mr. Roque later said Mr. Duterte does not approve the use of profanities, particularly in the field of diplomacy.

Mr. Locsin also apologized to his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, after his expletive-laden tweet.

A United Nations arbitration court in 2016 rejected China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea. The Philippines under President Benigno S.C. Aquino III filed the lawsuit that critics said Mr. Duterte had failed to pursue.

“The Philippine government continues to strengthen its presence in the West Philippine Sea with a view towards law enforcement, deterrence of illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing and protection of the welfare and safety of our fisherfolk,” the task force said in the statement.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the waterway.

Mr. Duterte had said the Philippines and China could settle the dispute peacefully. He also said China was a benefactor, citing vaccine donations and investments from its neighbor.

The tough-talking leader also said he never promised during his presidential campaign to retake the country’s territories in the South China Sea.

He rebuked retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who have spoken against his foreign policy on China, for forcing him to quarrel with his neighbor.

But Mr. Carpio belied the President’s claim, noting that during the campaign, he had promised to fight for Philippine sovereignty over the South China Sea.

He said Mr. duterte had promised to ride a jet ski to Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag there.

Mr. Duterte this week said he was just joking. — Norman P. Aquino and VMMV

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