MANILA – Chinese maritime militia vessels remained berthed at the Whitsun Reef, which is located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, lending credence to what Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described as China’s plot to permanently occupy the feature.
Lorenzana disclosed on Saturday that at least 32 militia ships are still moored around the reef, which measures 30 kilometers in length and 50 kilometers in diameter, and situated 175 nautical miles from the island of Palawan.
Also, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Cirilito Sobejana said on Sunday that at least 28 Chinese ships, including from its military and paramilitary forces, are still anchored within the Philippines’ maritime waters, excluding Whitsun Reef.
The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias at the reef – seen and monitored earlier last month in “military formation” – remains the biggest security concern and territorial challenge yet for the Philippines, with officials believing it was a prelude to occupation if left unchecked.
The United States military has declared that Chinese maritime militias are part of and working under the aegis of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and therefore, it considered them as legitimate targets if a shooting war were to occur between the U.S. and China in the East and South China Sea.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea. They have done this before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) and at Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law,” Lorenzana declared.
Last week, a China Coast Guard vessel blocked a fishing boat with a team of local journalists that was on its way to Second Thomas Shoal – which is located about 168 nautical miles from Palawan – before two Chinese fast attack craft chased the boat as it turned away for land.
The swarming presence of militia ships and the specter of occupation had served as a backdrop for the joint U.S. and Philippine military exercise Balikatan that will open today, Manila time, wherein 1,700 Filipino and American troops will take part in war games for two weeks.
The exercises, which were canceled last year, will commence a day after Lorenzana and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held a telephone conference wherein they discussed the situation at Whitsun Reef and overall security in the region.
The Philippines first learned of the presence of 222 Chinese maritime militia ships at Whitsun on March 7 this year, prompting Lorenzana to demand from the Chinese government that they pull out the ships. The issue escalated into a word war, with the Chinese Embassy claiming that the militias were at the reef to seek shelter against bad weather.
But Lorenzana said he was not a fool to believe the Chinese, citing the prevailing good weather throughout the cluster of features in the maritime territory that Beijing disputes.
Three weeks after the March 7 sighting most of the Chinese vessels at Whitsun dispersed, but redeployed in the cluster of features the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. Only 44 ships remained at the reef and Lorenzana on Saturday disclosed that number had further decreased to 32.
The defense secretary said the ships must not be at the reef, as they have no business being there, especially since their presence is in swarming and alarming numbers.
Last Wednesday the Chinese foreign ministry claimed it had no plans to occupy Whitsun Reef, eliciting a response from the Philippines that if such was the case, they must “leave at once.”
The Philippines is closely watching China’s next move amid the possibility that it may have averted Beijing’s plot of occupation for now through its sustained verbal caution and with the statement of support from its allies, including the U.S., which has warned that any attack on the Philippines will trigger its Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila.
The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group bearing the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit are also in the South China Sea performing routine operations. The U.S. and the Philippines kicked off bilateral Balikatan military exercises on Monday, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manila.