Philippines mulls stationing patrol vessel near disputed South China Sea reef

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources' multi-mission offshore vessels BRP Lapu-Lapu and BRP Francisco Dagohoy (Photo: Incat Crowther)

The Philippine government is presently considering temporarily stationing one of its vessels near a disputed reef in the South China Sea, the country’s defence chief has confirmed.

In an interview with CNN Philippines on Monday, March 29, Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said the stationing of a vessel just off Whitsun Reef is one of the options being studied by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) in response to the verified sighting of over 200 Chinese fishing vessels in the same area.

Whitsun Reef, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 175 nautical miles off Palawan province, is claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

Mr Lorenzana clarified that the government can only send patrol vessels from either the Philippine Coast Guard or the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and not the Philippine Navy, lest it be accused of “provoking an incident and militarising the area.”

The defence secretary had earlier joined other senior Philippine officials in calling for the Chinese government to pull the vessels out of the reef.

NTF-WPS officials believe the vessels are manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel. Beijing, however, reiterates that the vessels are not militia-crewed and that they had massed near the reef simply to seek shelter due to rough sea conditions in the area.

The Philippines has since filed a diplomatic protest over the continued presence of the Chinese vessels near the reef.

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