“The president said we are really concerned. Any country will be concerned with that number of ships,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told a regular news conference on Thursday.
According to Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte had raised the issue with the Chinese envoy to the Philippines and Beijing said the ships had been forced to move into the Philippines-claimed territory because of “bad weather.”
“There is no controversy over the vessels because China is not fighting for unlimited time to stay there,” Roque said, adding that “in the spirit of friendship, we expect them to leave.” The spokesman said the president stands by his policy of protecting the Philippines and its territory through peaceful means.
The country’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea has disputed the Chinese claim that bad weather had forced the ships to take refuge in Philippine waters. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying has defended the vessels’ presence in the reef and denied claims they belong to the militia. Photos released earlier this week show hundreds of Chinese ships, reportedly 220, moored at the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as the Whitsun Reef.
Chinese militia vessels are still in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West PH Sea, 15 days after they were first reported by the Coast Guard.
AFP chief Lt. Gen. Sobejana says “183 CMM vessels” were spotted from the maritime patrol conducted by the Air Force this morning. pic.twitter.com/B9Tn0J0ofe
— Frances Mangosing (@FMangosingINQ) March 22, 2021
The V-shaped reef sits on the northeast perimeter of the Union Banks in the hotly contested Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. Until the 1990s, the reef was mostly submerged but the development of dunes in the late 20th century made territorial claims possible. The Philippines says the reef falls within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Speaking on Thursday, Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang claimed China’s move in the reef, which it calls Da Ba Dau, infringed on Vietnamese sovereignty. “Vietnam requests that China stop this violation and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Hang told gathered reporters.
Both China and Vietnam have staked a claim to the now 100-meter-long sand bank, mirroring competition over small islands and reefs throughout the South China Sea.
In 2016, UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas) ruled against China and its nine-dash line which states 90% of the South China Sea belongs to Beijing, thus dismissing Chinese claims to the reef, a point which was highlighted by Roque on Thursday. The waterway sees more than three trillion dollars-worth of trade flow through it each year, while under the seabed the area is touted to be rich in hydrocarbons.