PH PRESENCE AT WPS. A photo taken on April 11, 2021 shows 136 Chinese maritime militia at the vicinity of Burgos (Gaven) Reef in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Malacañang said on Wednesday (April 14) said the Philippines has stepped up its presence in the WPS amid China’s incursions into the country’s exclusive economic zone. (NTF-WPS photo)

MANILA – The Philippines has stepped up its presence in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) amid China’s incursions into the country’s exclusive economic zone, Malacañang said on Wednesday.

“The presence of Philippine maritime security and law enforcement forces have been stepped up in the municipality of Kalayaan to protect Filipino fishermen and the marine resources,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a press statement.

Roque issued the statement the same day as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) once again filed two diplomatic notes against China after 200 Chinese vessels were spotted in the Julian Felipe Reef on April 11.

The first diplomatic protest counts as the daily protest as long as there are Chinese ships in and around Julian Felipe Reef and the second is on the dispersal of Chinese vessels to other parts of Philippine maritime zones.

Apart from the filing of diplomatic protests, the DFA also summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over the current situation in Julian Felipe Reef, Roque said.

The Philippines first lodged a note verbale over the incident in Julian Felipe Reef on March 21 after around 200 Chinese vessels were spotted moored in line formation in the area. The number reportedly decreased to 44 ships based on a March 30 patrol by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Roque likewise reiterated that President Rodrigo Duterte, during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, stressed the importance of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling on the Philippines’ petition against China’s sweeping claims over the contested South China Sea.

He added that the National Task Force on West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) is “consistent” in invoking Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights over WPS.

On July 12, 2016, the PCA in the Hague, Netherlands ruled In favor of the Philippines after it invalidated China’s claim to nearly the entire SCS.

Avoid escalating tensions

During his commentary show “Counterpoint” on Wednesday, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo told journalists to avoid going to the WPS, saying any activity in the contested waters could only escalate tensions between the Philippines and China.

Panelo issued the statement after the news team of ABS-CBN reporter Chiara Zambrano earlier received a radio message from a ship of the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) after trying to make its way to Ayungin Shoal.

Panelo slammed Zambrano for “exaggerating” news about the WPS issue.

“Ito ho, mahilig talaga itong ine-exaggerate nito ang lahat nang nakikita niyang balita. ‘Yung kaniyang pagbabalita, may kasamang pambanat sa gobyerno (She is fond of exaggerating every issue. Her style of reporting is when she delivers news, she criticizes the government),” he said.

Zambrano’s news team was recently aboard a local civilian vessel to cover the situation of Filipino fishermen amid the presence of Chinese vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef.

However, Zambrano’s team was reportedly driven away by CCG while onboard a civilian boat four miles away from Ayungin Shoal.

According to the ABS-CBN report, the Filipino captain decided to steer the boat away from the shoal but the CCG vessel “accelerated its speed and started to chase” the civilian ship and followed “its path home to mainland Palawan for an hour.”

Reminding media to be more prudent, Panelo said journalists could still make a story about Filipino fishermen without visiting WPS.

He said going to the disputed sea could only ignite unwanted hostilities between China and the Philippines.

“Kumbaga, maging maingat na tayo. There are many ways naman para malaman (Let us be careful. There are many ways to know [the situation of the Filipino fishermen]),” Panelo said. “Hindi na kailangan na kayo’y pumunta sa lugar na nagkakairingan. Tensyonado na nga, dadagdagan niyo pa (There’s no need to go to the disputed sea. You would just escalate the tension there).”

On April 9, the AFP launched a probe into the reported harassment of a Filipino civilian vessel by CCG.

The AFP also asked Filipino journalists to “exercise prudence in the course of their job,” but the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said Zambrano’s team should not be blamed for being harassed.

Panelo defended the AFP, saying Zambrano and her team should have avoided the contested WPS, considering that there is ongoing tension in the area.

“The point I’m saying is that alam na natin na nagkakaroon na ng tensiyon doon, eh bakit pa natin dadagdagan. Kumbaga we’re creating situation na papa-reactin pa natin. Kaya hinabol (The point I’m saying is we know that there’s already a tension there, so why would we add more tension? We’re just creating situation that would make China react against us. That’s why they went after them),” he said.

Panelo said the government is trying to resolve the issue in WPS without causing hostilities.

“Ayaw na nga natin ng hostilities. Kung puwedeng mapag-usapan iyan sa lamesa ng diplomatikong pamamaraan, yun ang gawin natin (We do not want to create hostilities. If we can address it through diplomatic approach, that’s what we will do),” he said.

The AFP on Wednesday said it will continue the conduct of air and naval patrols off WPS to provide a firm basis for diplomatic protests filed by the Philippines due to continued Chinese incursions in the area. (PNA)