(UPDATE) FORTY-EIGHT Chinese fishing vessels have been swarming off Iroquois Reef in the West Philippine Sea, which is well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported on Friday.
AFP Western Command (Wescom) spokesman Commander Ariel Coloma said the presence of the Chinese boats was confirmed by a Philippine Navy patrol plane on June 30.
Coloma said during multiple flights over Iroquois Reef in the past week, pilots on the patrol plane observed an alarming presence of Chinese fishing boats.
Iroquois Reef is located south of Recto Bank, believed to hold immense oil reserves.
Recto has also been a focal point in the growing concern over China’s aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea, Coloma noted.
He said Lt. Edgard Abogado, pilot in command of the patrol plane, noted the “swarming” of Chinese fishing vessels or CFVs in the area is “quite visible from the air.”
Lt. Karla Andres, the co-pilot, added that “the CFVs were observed to be anchored in groups of five to seven, and no fishing activities were noticed. They seem to just loiter in the area.”
Coloma said the recent sightings confirm earlier Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) flights, which indicated an increasing presence of CFVs.
“From only 12 CFVs recorded back in February this year, their numbers have now risen to 47 as of June 12,” Coloma said.
An unusually high number of Chinese vessels have also been observed at Sabina Shoal.
Coloma said three China Coast Guard (CCG) ships and two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels regularly loiter there.
“These developments raise an alarming concern about China’s intentions and actions within these disputed waters,” he said.
Coloma said that in response to the growing presence of Chinese vessels at Iroquois Reef, Wescom has submitted “the report of our pilots regarding their sightings during their maritime patrol, and after that we are hoping that this will form part of the documents for the potential filing of a diplomatic protest by [the Department of Foreign Affairs] or by higher authorities.”
“We are not letting go; our assets will continue to be used for sovereignty and maritime patrols in the area,” he stressed.
On Friday, United States Defense Chief Lloyd James Austin 3rd expressed alarm over China’s recent “coercive and risky operational behavior” directed against Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea, including around Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
Austin voiced his concern during a telephone conversation with Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., according to a handout issued by the US Defense Department.
Austin highlighted the ironclad alliance commitment of the US with the Philippines and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft and armed forces — to include those of its Coast Guard — in the Pacific, including anywhere in the West Philippine Sea, the handout stated.
The defense secretaries also reaffirmed their commitment to uphold rules-based order and support the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and other claimant states that seek to conduct lawful maritime activities in the West Philippine Sea, consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling.
They further committed to building on important achievements in the months ahead, including concluding a Security Sector Assistance Roadmap, which will advance shared defense modernization goals over the next five years, as well as a General Security of Information Agreement to enable future transfers of advanced and interoperable US technology.