Chinese militia vessels leave PH-claimed Sabina Shoal

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 5) — The Philippine Coast Guard has spotted a total of 12 Chinese maritime militia vessels loitering at Sabina Shoal, just off Palawan in the West Philippine Sea.

In two separate instances, they dispersed the area, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea and Philippine Coast Guard said on Tuesday.

Philippine officials reported seven maritime militia vessels from China were seen in a stationary linear formation at Sabina Shoal, also known locally as Escoda Shoal, on April 27. The local crew of BRP Cabra issued three radio communications, but there was no response from the Chinese crew. After around 20 minutes, the foreign vessels left the shoal after being "challenged" by local personnel.

"Nakipag-komunikasyon ang PCG sa mga ito para ipahayag na ang Sabina Shoal ay bahagi ng Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) ng Pilipinas," the PCG said in a statement.

[Translation: The PCG made radio communications to tell them that Sabina Shoal is part of the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.]

Two days later, a similar incident happened in the same location, according to the NTF-WPS. The BRP Cabra returned to Sabina Shoal on April 29 to conduct maritime exercises and found five Chinese maritime militia vessels anew. The vessels left after the arrival of the Philippine Coast Guard.

Sabina Shoal is located nearly 130 nautical miles west of Puerto Princesa in Palawan and east of Ayungin Shoal. The Department of Foreign Affairs previously said it "is within Philippine sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction."

Amid these incursions, the NTF-WPS said the country will continue law enforcement activities in Philippine waters.

“The Philippines maintains the deployment of law enforcement patrols and maritime exercises of the Philippine Coast Guard and Department of Agriculture - Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessels on a rotational basis over the waters of the Municipality of Kalayaan and our Exclusive Economic Zone,” National Security Adviser and NTF-WPS chief Hermogenes Esperon said in a statement.

However, when asked about the proposal to deploy the bigger ships of the Philippine Navy to the waters, Esperon said it would be better to stick to the norm for now, that is, having the Coast Guard in the area.

“It is better to use the Coast Guard, that is the norm, as well as the Bureau of Fisheries vessels,” Esperon said in a separate interview with CNN Philippines’ News Night. “We’re doing that right now. The Navy is there, but they are designed for other things."

Gov't tells Filipino fishermen: Continue fishing

Following China's recent announcement about the implementation of a “unilateral" fishing ban in some areas of the South China Sea from May 1 to August 16, Esperon urged Filipino fishermen to continue with their livelihood as they are not covered by China's pronouncement.

"Go out and fish in our waters in the West Philippine Sea," he said.

Esperon said authorities are conducting regular patrols around the Pag-asa Islands, including the sandbars to the west and reefs to east of the main island, as well as regular patrols to Pag-asa Cay 2, “contrary to claims that the Philippines has 'lost' this feature which is part of our territory.”

The Philippines has filed several diplomatic protests against China in the past weeks to object the continued illegal presence of its Coast Guard vessels and fishing boats in the country's maritime zones.

They have recently been spotted in Bajo de Masinloc, and Julian Felipe Reef, among others areas. There are also "illegal" man-made structures built on Pagkakaisa Banks.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Monday hurled expletives at China for its persistent activity in the country's waters, saying its refusal to leave is putting a strain on the two nations' cordial ties.

He later apologized to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after China urged the Philippines to observe "basic etiquette."

The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed 83 diplomatic protests against China under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.