MANILA, Philippines — AFP’s military aircraft patrolling the West Philippine Sea was challenged five times over the radio when Chinese militia swarming Julian Felipe Reef asked it to “leave immediately.”
Members of the media who were given rare access to Tuesday’s maritime patrol on board a tactical military transport aircraft recorded the radio communications from the Chinese fleet.
“You are approaching a Chinese reef… please leave immediately,” the Chinese forces said in one of the radio challenges.
The aircraft of the Philippine Air Force responded, “This is Philippine government aircraft… we are conducting routine maritime patrol over Philippine EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and we are proceeding based on our planned route.”
In the latest aerial patrol, majority of the 220 Chinese fishing vessels initially spotted while moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef are now located some 175 nautical miles east of Bataraza, Palawan and well within the country’s EEZ.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines explained that China’s radio challenges “have been customary” in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are included in Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, AFP spokesperson, said Philippine forces have also been giving a standard response to the radio challenges.
The task force on Wednesday reported a different set of figures, citing three rounds of routine aerial and maritime sovereignty patrol missions conducted as of Monday. It said over 200 Chinese vessels have been scattered in the Kalayaan Island Group in the disputed Spratlys.
A document from the National Task Force (NTF) for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) and several photos obtained by the Manila Bulletin indicated that the vessels believed to be manned by Chinese militias did not actually leave the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea but were roaming around and were evidently conducting activities similar to sea patrol.
The same photos and document revealed that 44 vessels were still docked at the Julian Felipe Reef as of March 29 after the Philippine government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, filed a diplomatic protest against China’s apparent incursion in the West Philippine Sea.
China appears to habitually enter and exit the Julian Felipe Reef when the 220 vessels were monitored on March 7. The number later decreased to 183 vessels on March 23, before it increased to 199 vessels on March 29. The Chinese vessels have been going in and out of the reef as early as November last year.
The NTF-WPS, however, found out that the Chinese vessels that left the Julian Felipe Reef on March 29 just transferred to other areas in the West Philippine Sea.
It said that 115 vessels were monitored at the Kennan (Chigua) Reef; 45 vessels were at the Pagasa (Thitu) Island; while 50 other vessels were dispersed at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Kagitingan (Fiery) Reef, and Zamora (Subi) Reef — all located within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Further, four vessels from People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) were also spotted at the Panganiban Reef, which forms part of the EEZ and continental shelf of the main Philippine archipelago, the NTF-WPS report said.
Like Julian Felipe Reef, Kennan Reef can be found in the Union (Pagkakaisa) Banks while Pag-asa Island, a Philippine-administered island, is located approximately 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
Meanwhile, the Panganiban, Kagitingan, and Zamora reefs are all within the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan.