PH summons Chinese envoy over ‘illegal lingering’ of vessels in WPS

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Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 13) — The Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday announced it has summoned China’s envoy over the “illegal lingering presence” of Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian was summoned on Monday, the DFA said in a statement nearly a month after the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea reported the presence of around 200 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef. The area, also known as Whitsun Reef, is located close to Bataraza, Palawan, well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the Kalayaan Island Group.

READ: Chinese ‘militia’ vessels now scattered in West PH Sea, task force says

Armed Forces chief Gen. Cirlito Sobejana earlier said there were still 28 Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea as of April 9 — six China Coast Guard ships, 20 fishing boats, and two other vessels believed to be militia. In a tweet on Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, citing information from the government task force, said there are "only nine ships left," but it's not clear how many are still at Julian Felipe Reef.

“The DFA expressed displeasure over the illegal lingering presence of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef,” the agency’s statement read, adding that it reiterated "the firm demand of the Philippines that China ensure the immediate departure of all its vessels from the area of Julian Felipe Reef and other maritime zones of the Philippines."

It said DFA Acting Undersecretary Elizabeth Buensuceso told Huang that the reef is within the Philippines' EEZ and its vessels there are a “source of regional tension.” She also raised the 2016 arbitral decision which recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights in areas within its EEZ that China contests.

“Both sides affirmed the use of peaceful settlement of disputes in addressing their differences,” the DFA said. It noted that this is the first time Huang was summoned more than a year into his term.

China's vessels at Julian Felipe Reef prompted the Philippines to file a number of diplomatic protests and repeatedly demand that China withdraw its ships. Other countries, including the US, have called out China for raising tensions in the disputed waters and stressed the need for the East Asian giant to finally abide by the arbitral ruling.

READ: PH, US tackle 'enhanced cooperation' amid massing of Chinese vessels in WPS

Beijing insisted owning Julian Felipe Reef as part of its historic nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea, which the arbitral tribunal had invalidated. It also said the vessels were not maritime militia but fishing boats seeking shelter from bad weather. Weeks later, however, the ships remained moored at Julian Felipe Reef.