PH warns China: Await more protests as vessels refuse to exit Julian Felipe Reef

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 5) — The Philippines on Monday warned it will fire off diplomatic protests for each day Chinese vessels suspected to be maritime militia refuse to leave Philippine waters.

The Department of Foreign Affairs reiterated the demand of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for China to immediately withdraw its vessels that are in the vicinity of Julian Felipe Reef and in the Philippines' maritime zones.

“For every day of delay, the Republic of the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest," the agency said in a strongly-worded statement.

The DFA in March 21 filed the first diplomatic protest against China over the presence of over 200 Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea. It demanded that China promptly withdraw its ships, however, about 44 Chinese vessels are still moored at the reef almost two weeks after the Philippines' demand. Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana said last week Beijing gave its assurance that its vessels are only temporarily staying at Julian Felipe Reef.

Also known as Whitsun Reef, Julian Felipe is a shallow coral reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan, well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Aside from China's presence in the Julian Felipe Reef, over 200 of its vessels are in different reefs in the Kalayaan Island Group, which the Philippines considers part of Palawan province.

Heated exchange

A word war erupted between Manila and Beijing officials over the weekend.

Lorenzana on April 3 said he was "no fool" to buy China's excuse that bad weather is preventing the vessels from leaving Julian Felipe Reef.

In response, the Chinese Embassy in Manila called the Cabinet secretary's statement "perplexing" and "unprofessional." It reiterated its claim that the reef is part of China's Nansha Islands. The Embassy added it was "completely normal" for Chinese fishing vessels to fish near the reef.

This was shunned by DFA in its statement.

"Tradition yields to law whether or not it is regarded as traditional fishing. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the final and binding 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitratiion are clearly the only norm applicable to this situation," the department said.

An arbitral tribunal in 2016 invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea based on "historic rights" and recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights to parts of its EEZ, which the East Asian giant contests. It also ruled that China's island-building activities on several reefs in the Kalayaan Island Group constitute violations UNCLOS and "have caused devastating and long-lasting damage to the marine environment." China refuses to recognize the landmark ruling.

DFA also said the Chinese Embassy's remark contained other "blatant falsehoods," such as fallacious claims of bad weather, denial of existence of maritime militia in the area, and its attempt to promote China's claims in the West Philippine Sea — which DFA said is a clear false narrative from the side of Beijing.

It also denounced the attempt of the Chinese Embassy to "impugn" Lorenzana by calling his statements unprofessional.

"Chinese Embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government," it said.