China claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea and has asserted its stance by building up small shoals and reefs into military bases with airstrips and port facilities.
Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all have rival claims to the waters, which incorporate strategically crucial shipping lanes and could harbour oil and gas deposits.
A fleet of more than 200 Chinese ships that sparked a diplomatic row last month after parking at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef off the Philippines is now scattered across the contested Spratly Islands.
Manila has called on Beijing to withdraw the “maritime militia” vessels from the area, saying their presence is unlawful.
China has refused, insisting they are fishing boats and are allowed to operate there.
Lorenzana said Sunday the vessels were there for other reasons.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Lorenzana pointed to China’s seizure of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef as previous examples of them “brazenly violating” the country’s sovereignty.
On Saturday, Lorenzana rejected China’s claims that the boats parked at Julian Felipe Reef—and where dozens remained last week—had been seeking shelter from bad weather.
“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no other reason to stay there,” he said. “Get out of there.”
The Chinese embassy in Manila called Lorenzana’s statement “perplexing” and urged authorities to avoid “unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”
Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights over most of the South China Sea, and it has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared this assertion as without basis.
The Chinese Embassy issued the statement after Lorenzana on Saturday called for the withdrawal of the remaining Chinese ships off Julian Felipe Reef saying there is no reason for them to stay there.
He said China has done this before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, and at Panganiban Reef “brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law.”
Lorenzana also branded as “appalling” the Chinese Embassy’s disregard of international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“Its nine-dash line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal,” he added.
Lorenzana said the Philippines’ claims stand on solid ground, while China’s does not.
“China should respect Philippine sovereignty over the Kalayaan Islands, and its sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone as defined by UNCLOS and affirmed by the arbitral award,” he added.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF WPS) earlier expressed concern about a Philippine Coast Guard report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7
The reef is located about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who had just returned from an official visit to China on April 2, said his department was contemplating a “demarche” or a formal protest presented through diplomatic channels following the Chinese embassy’s statement that the reef was part of Chinese territory.
Locsin said the presence of Chinese fishing vessels per se was not the problem.
“Coming and going fishing makes no claim of possession per se; it is only when Chinese embassy claimed the area as Chinese territory—as evidenced by the swarm—that it becomes problematic. Considering a demarche,” Locsin said on his Twitter account.
The Philippines earlier filed a diplomatic protest against China for the 220 Chinese militia vessels sighted moored in the Juan Felipe Reef.
China on Saturday slammed Lorenzana for demanding the Chinese vessels leave the reef, an area that Beijing claims as part of its Nansha Islands and a traditional fishing ground for its fishermen.
“The Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Islands. The waters around Niu’e Jiao have been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years. The Chinese fishermen have been fishing in the waters for their livelihood every year. It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities,” the Chinese Embassy said in a statement posted at its Facebook account.
“The Chinese Embassy has taken note of the perplexing statement by Philippine Defense Secretary on Chinese fishing vessels around Niu’e Jiao in the South China Sea… The Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Islands,” the statement added.
The embassy issued the statement after Lorenzana demanded that China pull out the remaining Chinese vessels moored at Julian Felipe Reef to leave the area.
In the House, an administration congressman denounced the presence of the Chinese ships.
“An insult of the highest order, revolting and sickening,” was how Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers described the claim of China over Julian Felipe reef and the rest of the West Philippine Sea.
“For hundreds of years China never laid claim on these territories within the West Philippine Sea which are part of our exclusive economic zone and recognized by international bodies and many countries. Suddenly when Xi Jing Pin became their president, it was like magic that the entire West Philippine Sea became theirs,” Barbers, chairman of the House committee on dangerous drugs, said.
“This method or process of annexation should never be countenanced, not by any self-respecting Philippine government nor any sovereign nation and international body for that matter,” Barbers said.
“Thousands upon thousands of Filipinos have died fighting for our sovereignty and freedom. It would be a sacrilege to them and to us living if we allow this affront to our dignity as a nation and as a people,” he said.
Barbers also said the Philippine government must be able to affirm its sovereign rights against the Julian Felipe Reef which is 324 kilometers from the southern tip of Palawan province, thus well within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“We should not have allowed a single pail of concrete or a piece of nail to touch our sacred land. Now that they have built complete concrete structures and encircled our territory with their militia ships, we should not and cannot simply keep quiet and allow a silent invasion to happen right under our noses. We owe it to our countrymen who made the ultimate sacrifice, for us to know the value of freedom,” Barbers added.
He commended Lorenzana for demanding the Chinese Ambassador to honor his word that the ships were there to seek shelter during the bad weather and would leave as the weather improved.
“It has been weeks that the weather is good yet they are all still there. I assure Secretary Lorenzana that I am with him in this fight.
We need other patriotic Filipinos like him so that no country can ever bully us again. I hope that the good Secretary is joined by the other members of the Cabinet in his stance against the donor of 800,000 doses of Sinovac”, Barbers said.
“Lastly, I want to tell our neighbor China that our land does not come cheap and is not for sale nor trade. It is not the equivalent of even millions of doses of Sinovac vaccines. We are not ceding any portion of our territory in exchange for the vaccines,” he said.
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