The Philippines’ “National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea” (NTF-WPS) said through a statement on May 12 that “the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels intruding into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) reached 287.”
The group’s statement said, “This incident and the continued illegal incursions by foreign vessels found near Philippine-controlled islands have been referred to the relevant agencies for possible diplomatic action.” In recent weeks, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly protested through diplomatic channels over the “swarming and threatening presence” of Chinese vessels in its exclusive economic zone and demanded that the Chinese vessels withdraw from the disputed waters.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been under constant pressure from the opposition and public opinion due to the continued presence of Chinese vessels. The Philippine government has recently responded to domestic discontent by deploying ships and aircraft on “sovereignty patrols” to demonstrate its presence in the South China Sea. Earlier, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian mentioned in an interview with Chinese official media on September 9 that “the South China Sea issue is an inescapable issue between China and the Philippines, but it is not a deadlock that cannot be untied.
He said, “The South China Sea issue is a partial issue, while China-Philippines relations are a whole. The two sides cannot let the 1% difference affect the 99% friendship and cooperation situation. Both sides should, in accordance with the important consensus of the two heads of state, settle their differences through friendly consultations, promote cooperation, enhance mutual trust and work together to maintain the overall situation of bilateral relations and peace and stability at sea.”
Experts say Chinese fishing vessels and the maritime police fleet are a central component of China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea. According to current indications, Beijing maintains a presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea by sending a large number of vessels to complicate and challenge the fisheries and offshore energy exploration activities of other claimants.
Amid the Philippines’ dispute with China over sovereignty in the South China Sea, Duterte made controversial remarks last week that the Philippines’ 2016 arbitration victory over China in the South China Sea “is a scrap of paper that can be thrown in the trash.” His statement was criticized by Vice President Leni Robredo and former Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, among others, from the opposition.
While Duterte’s attitude is ambiguous, the Philippine National Working Group on the West Philippine Sea said in a statement on April 4 that it does not accept China’s ban on a fishing moratorium in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and encourages Philippine fishing vessels to continue fishing in Philippine territorial waters. Jose Antonio Custodio, a Philippine defense and security analyst, commented that Duterte’s statement “offsets” the tough stance taken by his senior diplomats and defense secretary against China. He noted, “We don’t have a unified messaging, which is encouraging China’s actions.”