MANILA – Malacañang on Monday said it believes that the alleged Chinese militia vessels spotted off the Julian Felipe Reef (Union Reefs) in the West Philippine Sea would not escalate to a repeat of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag) standoff.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque made this remark after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) air patrol on Monday confirmed the presence of the Chinese vessels spotted within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS) off Julian Filipe Reef.

Roque expressed confidence that strong ties between the Philippines and China would prevent such an incident from happening again.

“I don’t think so po dahil mayroon po tayong malapit na pagkakaibigan. Lahat naman po ay napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan at magkapit-bahay (because we have a close friendship. Everything can be discussed between two friends and neighbors),” Roque said in a virtual press briefing.

Roque, however, refused to make further comments, saying he will leave the matter to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

“Pinababayaan ko na muna po sa DFA iyan, nakatutok lang po muna tayo dito sa Covid. Si Secretary Locsin na po ang sasagot diyan (We leave it to the DFA, we are prioritizing Covid. Secretary Locsin will respond to that),” he added.

On Sunday night, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China.

“Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light,” Locsin said in a tweet.

Earlier, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF WPS) expressed concern about a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted moored 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.

No Chinese maritime militia

In a statement on Monday, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines said some Chinese fishing vessels recently took shelter near Julian Felipe Reef (Niu’e Jiao) “due to rough sea conditions.”

“It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances,” the statement read.

The Chinese embassy also clarified there is no Chinese maritime militia in the area which, it said, is part of China’s Nansha Qundao.

“Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in its adjacent waters for many years,” it said. “Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”

Julian Felipe 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.

Scarborough Shoal, on the other hand, is a triangle-shaped coral reef situated 124 nautical miles off Zambales.

The Philippines lost Scarborough Shoal to China after a controversial standoff in 2012 where China blocked Filipino fishermen from Scarborough. This prompted Manila to file a case before the international arbitration.

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands ruled in favor of the Philippines’ petition, saying China has no legal basis to assert its supposedly historic rights over nearly the entire South China Sea.

The PCA did not rule on which country has sovereignty over Scarborough but called out China for violating Filipinos' traditional fishing rights there.

China, however, stood pat on its decision to reject the ruling, calling it “illegal and invalid.”

Apart from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam are also laying claim to parts of the South China Sea. (PNA)