Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, has ordered the deployment of additional Philippine Navy ships to bolster the conduct of maritime sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
In a statement Thursday, AFP spokesperson, Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo, said this additional naval presence in the area aims to reassure the Filipino people that the military remains committed to protecting and defending them from harassment.
“By the increased naval presence in the area, we seek to reassure our people of the AFP’s strong and unwavering commitment to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the country’s rich fishing ground which is the source of their livelihood,” he said.
Due to the vastness of the country’s maritime domains, Arevalo said the AFP’s Western Command is the government’s “eyes and ears” by providing vital information on what is happening in that part of the Philippines.
“The importance of the data obtained from our littoral monitoring stations, from our Marines manning the islands, islets, and features they occupy, and those from regular aerial and maritime sovereignty that are contained in our reports to the NTF WPS (National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea) cannot be overemphasized,” he added.
Aside from these measures, the AFP likewise resorts to non-traditional means to manage the issues arising in the WPS.
“AFP representatives engaged on March 24, 2021 their Chinese counterpart in a meeting to discuss the situation obtaining in the WPS as reported. We conveyed the Defense Secretary’s (Delfin Lorenzana) demand for the vessels to leave Julian Felipe Reef where 183 vessels were sighted per AFP’s recent aerial patrol,” Arevalo said.
In the meeting, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) representatives reiterated their government’s assurance that those ships were not manned by militia and that those were constrained to seek shelter in the area when inclement weather hampered their fishing activity.
“He also committed to making himself available to discuss and explain any future issues involving the PLA,” Arevalo said.
Earlier, the NTF WPS expressed concern about a Philippine Coast Guard report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.
“The NTF WPS notes this circumstance as a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to the safety of navigation,” the NTF WPS said.
The reef is a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.