Philippine officials threatened on Monday to file daily diplomatic protests unless Beijing removed dozens of ships from disputed South China Sea waters, as Manila kept the pressure up over what it alleges are Chinese militia ships encroaching in and around its exclusive economic zone.
The statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs was the latest shot in an escalating war of words over China’s refusal to vacate Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe Reef and is within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“For every day of delay, the Republic of the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest,” the DFA said, stressing that China’s ships “blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty.”
The department pointed out that the reef is 638 nautical miles from Hainan Island, the nearest Chinese landmass, as the Philippines rejected China’s argument that it is part of their “traditional fishing grounds.”
“Tradition yields to law whether or not it is regarded as traditional fishing,” Manila’s foreign office said, noting that an international tribunal had ruled in favor of the Philippines five years ago.
“The 12 July 2016 Award in the South China Sea arbitration conclusively settled the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea,” it said.
“The tribunal ruled that claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction that exceed the geographic and substantive limits of maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, are without lawful effect,” the DFA said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In a Facebook posting on Saturday, the Chinese Embassy laid claim to territories in the South China Sea and described as “perplexing” remarks by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier in the day demanding that the ships leave the region.
Lorenzana had said 44 Chinese ships were still near the Whitsun Reef and should leave, adding that Beijing’s earlier explanation that the ships were fishing boats sheltering in bad weather was not true.
“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there. These vessels should be on their way out,” Lorenzana had said. “The Chinese ambassador has a lot of explaining to do.”
In its Facebook post, the Chinese Embassy said the ships were in its territory.
“The Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Islands. The waters around Niu’e Jiao have been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years,” the statement said. Niu’e Jiao is the Chinese name for the Whitsun Reef.
“The Chinese fishermen have been fishing in the waters for their livelihood every year. It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities.”
The embassy also called on Philippine authorities to “avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”
On Monday, the DFA said it “strongly denounces the Embassy’s attempt to impugn the Secretary of National Defense – a Cabinet Official of the Republic of the Philippines – by calling his statement ‘unprofessional.’”
“The Embassy statement contained blatant falsehoods such as claims of adverse weather conditions when there were none and the supposed non-existence of maritime militia vessels in the area,” it said. “The statement also attempted to promote the clearly false narrative of China’s expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.”
The West Philippine Sea is how Manila refers to the South China Sea.
Chinese Embassy officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday.
Previously, Harry Roque, spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, had agreed with the Chinese envoy’s statement that Chinese fishing boats were moored in the area because of bad weather.
“We hope the weather clears up and in the spirit of friendship we are hoping that their vessels will leave the area,” Roque told reporters on March 25.
Since then, Manila has described the Chinese ships’ activity as “swarming” and said that the build-up of Chinese presence in Whitsun Reef and other parts of the Philippine-claimed areas was a navigational hazard.
China claims most of the South China as its own even as six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap its sweeping claims – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
Source: Radio Free Asia