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Busy with pandemic, Palace letting DFA deal with Chinese vessels in West Philippine Sea reef

Malacañang on Monday said it is letting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) deal with the reported deployment of over 200 China militia vessels to the West Philippine Sea, saying its current focus is the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a Palace briefing, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed that the DFA has already filed a diplomatic protest against China for the alleged deployment of the vessels.

"Well, naprotesta na po 'yan ng DFA matapos makumpirma ni National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon [The DFA has protested such action after National Security Adviser Esperon confirmed the incident),” Roque said.

"Hinahayaan ko muna sa kanila. Nakatutok po tayo sa COVID (I will leave it up to them. I am focused on COVID-19 response)."

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, citing reports from the Philippine Coast Guard, disclosed that some 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by the Chinese maritime militia, were sighted moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) last March 7.

The reef is a large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.

It is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf, over which the country enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources which encompass both living resources, such as fish, and non-living resources such as oil and natural gas.

Armed Forces chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana on Monday said based on latest information the vessels are still at the reef.

In 2013, the Philippines challenged China’s legal basis for its expansive claim before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, and won the case in a landmark award in 2016 after the tribunal invalidated Beijing’s assertions.

China rejected the ruling, saying its claims have historical basis and are “indisputable.”

China is among the donors of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, which is currently experiencing a significant surge in the number of infections. —KBK, GMA News