MANILA – The Western Command (Wescom) on Saturday expressed alarm over the heightened presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels and the case of massive coral harvesting along Rozul (Iroquois) Reef, which is located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
In a weekly news forum in Quezon City, Wescom commander Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos reported the “resurgence” of swarming incidents in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), noting that about 40 Chinese fishing vessels (CFVs) have been spotted as of Sept. 15 in Rozul Reef, which is located south of Recto Bank.
Carlos said the latest figure is higher compared to the 33 vessels spotted on Aug. 24 and the 24 tracked on Sept. 7.
Swarming was also observed in Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, where five CFVs were spotted, and in Baragatan (Nares) Bank, with two CFVs, according to a Wescom news release on Sept. 14.
“But the good news is we also have our presence there,” he said, referring to the vessels of the Philippine Navy (PN) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). “So, we are addressing the issue on this swarming.”
Carlos noted that in July, the PN deployed its divers to conduct an “underwater survey” in the swarmed area and found that “there were no more corals” in Rozul Reef.
The military is coordinating with the scientists and experts to assess the area, he said, adding that it specifically wants to verify the divers' assessment that massive harvesting of corals happened just recently.
“Nakita naming wala na ‘yung corals. Nasira na ‘yung mga coral and then may mga debris (We saw that there we no more corals. The corals were damaged and there was debris),” he said.
“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.”
Despite the recent incidents, Carlos said government troops want to “keep the peace and avoid miscalculation” in the WPS.
He guaranteed a heightened military presence in the Philippine waters.
“The presence (of Chinese vessels) is already alarming because we have the sovereign rights in our exclusive economic zone. Now, ito naman (coral harvesting issue) ay suspetsa pa lang natin (is just a suspicious). 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,” Carlos said.
“For the Western Command, that is alarming, kasi baka lumabas (because it might appear) that we are remiss in our duty in protecting our territory, as well as the riches of our exclusive economic zone. So, we are doubling our efforts on that. We are going to address that issue by increasing our presence there. We need to increase our presence there.”
Carlos said the government is “carefully” studying offers from other countries to conduct joint patrols with Philippine forces.
For now, the military is carrying out unilateral maritime patrols in the WPS, he said, adding that these are being “jointly conducted with the Philippine Coast Guard and the BFAR, not with any foreign country.”
“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,” Carlos said.
He noted that while the Philippines is “very happy” with other nations’ willingness to help the country, the military has not received any directive to do joint patrol with other nations. (PNA)