Hundreds of Chinese vessels spread out around Julian Felipe Reef, the latest cause of concern for the Philippine government and irritant to its relations with Beijing.

On a clear, sunny day on Tuesday, a Philippine Air Force C 295 transport plane took off at the Antonio Bautista military airbase in Puerto Princesa City for a 4-hour overflight of the West Philippine Sea, carrying reporters from various Palawan and Manila-based news agencies for an ocular inspection of the Julian Felipe Reef, a partly submerged reef system just 175 nautical miles from the southern Palawan town of Bataraza, and the latest flashpoint in the long-running sovereignty conflict between the Philippines and China.

A PAF plane flies over the Mischief or Panganiban Reef on Tuesday carrying Filipino journalists, while engaging Chinese troops nearby, challenging it to turn around.

Days earlier, on March 21, the Philippine government had fired a diplomatic protest to Beijing to protest the presence of some 220 alleged Chinese militia and Coast Guard vessels, described by defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana as a “provocation” and an effort at militarization of the area` by the Chinese.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila, in an official statement, had denied that the ships were its so-called militia vessels and claimed that those were ordinary fishing vessels and were merely taking shelter from the rough seas.

Paredes (Discovery Great) Reef.

Calm waters
When we reached the area midday on Tuesday, the weather was perfect and without any indication of any impending turbulence. The waters were calm as they could be, typical as it was the onset of summer. 

Randomly spread out around Julian Felipe Reef were hundreds of what appeared to be large fishing vessels, apparently moored in deep waters as they were mostly stationary. The boats were spread out all over the reef, and even spilling over the nearby Kennan, Gaven, and Johnson reefs.

Cuarteron Reef, a fully developed reclaimed reef by China in the Spratlys.

If the fishing vessels had indeed sheltered at the Julian Felipe Reef as claimed by the official Chinese Embassy statement, they had not left after a supposed storm and did not appear to be in a hurry to leave.

Earlier reports claimed that Chinese vessels had been coming in and out in large numbers in Julian Felipe Reef (internationally named Whitsun Reef) since December 2020.

Radio challenge
As Beijing had repeatedly rejected the international tribunal ruling in The Hague in 2016 which recognized the Philippines’ sovereignty over the area, China had been bold in asserting authority over the WPS and the rest of the South China Sea, often challenging vessels from other nations coming within the area where it had to build a string of artificial islands, some becoming military fortifications such as Mischief Reefs which they took over in the mid-1990s.

The conversation between our Filipino Air Force pilot and the Chinese military in the area were recorded on the plane’s computer system, typical of the standard warning issued by the Chinese in attempts to drive away its intruders.

Conversation between Chinese military and PAF pilot over WPS territory.

CHINESE MILITARY: YOU ARE APPROACHING A CHINESE REEF. TO AVOID ANY MOVE THAT MAY CAUSE MISUNDERSTANDING PLEASE LEAVE IMMEDIATELY

PHILIPPINE PILOT: THIS IS GOVERNMENT PHILIPPINE AIRCRAFT WE ARE CONDUCTING ROUTINE MARITIME PATROL OVER PHILIPPINE EEZ AND WE AREA PROCEEDING BASED ON OUR PLANNED ROUTE.

There was no further incident apart from the anticipated challenge issued by the Chinese, and the Philippine Air Force plane proceeded ahead with its flyover mission. (with reports from Ruth Rodriguez)

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