By Choekyi Lhamo
DHARAMSHALA, Apr. 6: The Philippines defence chief Delfin Lorenzana said on Sunday that China was looking to occupy more areas in the South China Sea. He warned against the continued presence of Chinese vessels that Manila administration suspects are manned by militias in disputed areas of the waterway. “The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas) in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea],” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
Chinese diplomats have responded to the statement, saying that the boats anchored near the reef were sheltering from rough seas and that no militias were aboard. Numbering more than 200 boats based on initial intelligence gathered by Philippines patrols, Lorenzana on Saturday said there were 44 Chinese vessels at Whitsum Reef despite improved weather conditions. “I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no reason to stay there,” he further remarked.”
“They have done this [occupy disputed areas] before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and at Panganiban Reef, brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law,” the defence chief said.
The presidential legal counsel, Salvador Panelo said the boats prolonged presence in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was an unwelcome stain on relations and may trigger “unwanted hostilities” that both countries would rather not pursue. “We can negotiate on matters of mutual concern and benefit, but make no mistake about it – our sovereignty is non-negotiable,” Panelo said in a statement on Monday. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, China and Vietnam also have competing claims for islands and features in the area.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila said in response to the comments that it was “completely normal” for Chinese vessels to fish in the area. “Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities,” it added. Panelo said the Philippines would not be blinded by China`s humanitarian gestures amid violations of international law, referring to COVID-19 vaccines donated by China.