July 10, 2023
MANILA – A senior Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) official on Saturday said the swarms of dozens of Chinese vessels close to the resource-rich Recto (Reed) Bank off Palawan province may be a prelude to China’s illegal occupation of the area.
PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela, maritime security adviser to the coast guard chief, said in an interview with dzBB radio that it was the first time that such a large number of Chinese vessels were seen at Del Pilar (Iroquois) Reef and Escoda (Sabina) Shoal.
“The only analysis that we can provide for the presence of these Chinese maritime militias is to swarm a particular maritime feature and to occupy it,” said Tarriela, who is also the PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea.
The Western Command (Wescom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported on Friday that more than 50 Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels were seen “loitering” at Del Pilar and Escoda south of Recto Bank west of Palawan province.
It said that the presence of such a large number of Chinese vessels, which were spotted by a Philippine reconnaissance plane on June 30, was “concerning and alarming development” and posed a “security threat” to that part of the country.
Three China Coast Guard ships and two Chinese naval vessels also were seen in those waters which are well within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Wescom said.
Tarriela said the PCG and the Philippine Navy would “intensify” their patrols in the area to determine whether the number of Chinese vessels had increased or decreased.
“Our objective is to expose them and deploy our vessels to drive them away,” he said.
Both the AFP and the PCG have recently openly reported the presence of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters.
According to Tarriela, this helped make it easier for them to drive vessels away, noting that the Chinese government was “very conscious” of its international reputation.
“This has been a tool for us to make sure that China’s aggressive behavior and bullying activities in the West Philippine Sea will be criticized by the international community,” he said.
In September 2021, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed diplomatic protests against China over the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the waters around Del Pilar. From less than five vessels in April that year, the number grew to 30 five months later.
The swarming at Del Pilar was observed after the dispersal, also after Manila’s diplomatic protests, of a record 200 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef.
In February this year, the PCG reported around 30 CMMs anchored at Escoda. The Chinese vessels eventually left after Manila again protested against their presence.
But the Chinese appear to be unperturbed by Manila’s protests when they interdicted a PCG resupply mission to a group of Philippine Marines on the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin (Second Thomas) southwest of Recto Bank. The Sierra Madre serves as the AFP’s outpost at Ayungin.
Risa blasts China spox
A PCG ship was blocked by a much larger Chinese coast guard vessel, which came dangerously close to less than 100 meters to it. This happened also on June 30.
China foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin defended the actions of the Chinese coast guard, saying that the PCG vessel tried to “intrude” into its waters “without Chinese permission” and that it conducted the blocking maneuver in a “professional and restrained” manner.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros blasted the spokesperson’s “sweeping and baseless claims” and for trying to portray China as a victim in that encounter.
“(Beijing’s spokesperson) should stop with the lies, gaslighting and propaganda. He is not helping his country on the world stage by insisting on these sweeping and baseless claims,” she said.
The Philippines has one of the weakest militaries in Asia in terms of arms and equipment.
President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. on Friday promised that his administration would continue supporting military modernization, which was delayed by the pandemic.
This is necessary “because we have to address the present dangers that we have … that we are facing in the Philippines,” he told reporters after speaking to graduates of the Philippine Army Officer Candidate Course.
‘Hope we catch up’
“So, that is I think the best guide for us as to what we will procure,” he said. “Hopefully we will catch up and in a year, maybe two, we will already be back to where we were supposed to be at that time before the pandemic.”
The Philippine Navy’s “wishlist” includes 12 corvettes, six frigates, 18 offshore patrol vessels and three submarines, among other assets, to effectively guard the country’s waters by 2028.
Marcos did not elaborate on the “present dangers” that the country faces but could be referring to old and emerging security threats to the country, including the feared Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which could involve the Philippines because of the presence of US forces in several military bases.
China’s continuing intrusions into Philippine waters and he maritime dispute between the two countries could be another, in addition to the more than half-century-old but waning communist insurgency and the terrorist attacks in the country’s south.