Heightened Presence of Chinese Militia Vessels
Swarming Incidents Raise Alarm
In a recent development, the Western Command (Wescom) has expressed growing concerns over the increased presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels and extensive coral harvesting activities near Rozul (Iroquois) Reef.
Furthermore, the reef is situated well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, which intensifies regional tensions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Swarming Incidents in the West Philippine Sea
At a weekly news forum held in Quezon City, Vice Admiral Albert Carlos, Commander of Wescom, reported a concerning “resurgence” in swarming incidents within the WPS. He noted that as of September 15, approximately 40 Chinese fishing vessels (CFVs) were observed near Rozul Reef, which is located south of Recto Bank. This figure marked an increase compared to 33 vessels spotted on August 24 and 24 on September 7.
Swarming incidents were also recorded in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, where five CFVs were sighted, and in Baragatan (Nares) Bank, where two CFVs were present, according to a Wescom news release dated September 14. Carlos acknowledged the presence of Philippine Navy (PN) and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessels in response to these incidents, stating,
“So, we are addressing the issue on this swarming.”
Coral Harvesting Concerns
In addition to the vessel presence, Vice Admiral Carlos highlighted concerns about coral harvesting activities. He disclosed that in July, the PN deployed divers to conduct an “underwater survey” in the swarmed area and reported a disheartening discovery: “There were no more corals” in Rozul Reef.
Assessment of Coral Depletion
The military is actively collaborating with scientists and experts to assess the extent of coral depletion in the area. Their primary objective is to verify the divers’ assessment, specifically the suspicion of recent massive coral harvesting.
“We are not making any conclusion at this time. It’s a work in progress but we just want to report coral harvesting in the area where (they were) seen loitering and swarming,” Carlos remarked.
Keeping the Peace in the West Philippine Sea
Despite the recent incidents, Vice Admiral Carlos emphasized the government’s commitment to “keep the peace and avoid miscalculation” in the WPS. He assured the public of an increased military presence in Philippine waters.
Sovereign Rights and Alarm Over Coral Harvesting
Carlos underscored the significance of upholding sovereign rights in the country’s EEZ, stating,
“The presence (of Chinese vessels) is already alarming because we have the sovereign rights in our exclusive economic zone.”
Regarding the coral harvesting issue, he clarified,
“Ito naman (coral harvesting issue) ay suspetsa pa lang natin (is just a suspicion). We are not saying that they are harvesting our corals. We suspect that somebody is harvesting our corals, and that means that they are violating our sovereign rights.”
“Tayo lang ang may karapatan sa resources sa (We have the exclusive right to exploit resources in the) West Philippine Sea,”
emphasizing the need to protect territorial interests and EEZ resources.
Exploring Joint Patrols and International Cooperation
In response to growing concerns, Carlos mentioned that the government is carefully evaluating offers from other nations to conduct joint patrols with Philippine forces. Presently, the military conducts unilateral maritime patrols in the WPS, working in coordination with the Philippine Coast Guard and the BFAR, while refraining from foreign involvement.
Carlos noted that while the Philippines appreciates the willingness of other nations to assist, there has been no directive to engage in joint patrols with foreign countries. He clarified,
“We are in engagement with whoever offers to help us, whoever shares our desire, our objective to establish a rules-based international order. We are studying carefully. All the offers are on the table.”
The heightened presence of Chinese militia vessels and coral harvesting activities in the Philippines’ EEZ has raised concerns. In response to these developments, the Western Command is conducting a closer assessment.
Furthermore, the Philippine government remains steadfast in its commitment to upholding sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. Additionally, it is actively exploring potential avenues for international cooperation to safeguard the region.