WESCOM commander Vice Adm. Rene Medina (File photo)

Western Command (WESCOM) commander Vice Admiral Rene Medina respects and agrees with the belief that the country should take a tough stance to assert its rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) but believes President Rodrigo Duterte is unerring in bringing about peaceful actions to resolve the territorial dispute.

Medina said this Saturday night as he confirmed recent sightings of an estimated 275 Chinese fishing vessels sailing around Pag-asa, Panata, and Kota islands in the contested region.

“We respect the comment of our Vice President (Leni Robredo) and we agree na dapat talaga may ngipin ang ating aksyon tungkol sa West Philippine Sea. [But] at the moment we have heard our government through the president of the Philippines that [through peaceful means]… the government is exerting efforts, really, to ensure that the presence of Chinese fishing boats in our area — Pag-asa, Panata, and Kota — will be addressed,” Medina said during a get-together event with members of the WESCOM Defense Press Corps on April 27.

Robredo, who recently visited Puerto Princesa City, said the Philippines should have more teeth in dealing with the WPS dispute, especially because of its victory in the ruling in The Hague.

He said they have documented all reports about the Chinese fishing vessels and are addressing the matter through the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTFWPS).

Medina pointed out that they are waiting for the move of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to address the issue.

“We have documented all these reports and through the NTFWPS we have addressed them through a diplomatic way. At the moment, we are now waiting also for the DFA on how it will address the issue. We believe also that through the diplomatic process, we can settle the issue of the WPS,” he pointed out.

Medina said the WESCOM trusts that through peaceful discussions and negotiations, President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be able to settle the dispute.

“We are hoping and we are believing na kung ano ang sasabihin nila ay ‘yon ang mangyayari dito sa WPS,” Medina added.

Medina said WESCOM’s air and maritime patrols have been increased in the WPS within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to continue the documentation of all developments to make credible reports to higher authorities.

He pointed out that WESCOM under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is doing its best to protect and defend the sovereignty of the Philippines in the WPS, but it “is not alone in making decisions.”

“Sumusunod lang kami talaga sa ahensya ng gobyerno na mayroong responsibilidad sa WPS. But there are other agencies in the government na dapat din na gawin nila ang kanilang trabaho para mapakita natin ang ating responsibilidad sa area,” Medina said further.

He said they are hoping that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) will also do their “respective responsibilities” in the WPS.

Current situation in WPS

Asked what the current situation is in the WPS, Medina said it remains the same since the Chinese fishing vessels were sighted in January this year.

“It’s the same as what we have reported previously, andoon pa rin ‘yong mga Chinese fishing boats… umaalis sila, palipat-lipat, pabalik-balik, so we are just continuing our monitoring so that we ensure also that we are not giving up our rights. Kung ano ‘yong nakikita natin araw-araw, hindi lang sa Pag-asa, pati sa Panata and Kota, ay dino-document natin, nire-report natin para maging basehan ng mga reklamo natin through the DFA para ma-sustain natin ‘yong claim natin dito sa WPS,” he said.

He said daily sightings of Chinese fishing vessels are 10-15 near sandbars that are two-to-five nautical miles away from Pag-asa Island, the Kalayaan municipal government center in the area.

Medina added further there are Chinese fishing vessels that also stay for more than 10 days.

In January, Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo first disclosed to Palawan News about the presence of over 50 Chinese fishing vessels in the waters and sandbars between Pag-asa Island and Subi Reef (also Zhubi Reef), a reef area being occupied by China.

READ RELATED NEWS:  Chinese boats seen daily near Pag-asa scare Pinoy fishermen

He said the presence of the Chinese fishing boats is driving them away from the sandbars.

“The rest ng bahura, ‘yong malapit doon sa pagitan ng Subi Reef at Pag-asa Island, hindi na kami makapangisda doon. Dati doon ang pangisdaan ng aming mga mangingisda kaya lang ngayon nahihirapan na silang pumasok doon,” Del Mundo told Palawan News.

Del Mundo said since December 2018, their daily sightings never go down to less than 50.

They also suspect the vessels are Chinese maritime militia spying on Philippine construction projects on Pag-asa.

Currently, the AFP is completing a “beaching ramp” on Pag-asa, which Medina said is already 57 percent complete as of two weeks ago.

“We’re hoping that the beach ramp will be finished within the year. But we are really conservative in that because after May the weather is no longer going to be this good. All concern right now is really to move all construction materials so that when the weather is no longer favorable, we can continue with the beaching ramp and then the rehabilitation of the [Rancudo] airbase. Kapag natapos ‘yong beaching ramp, ‘yong airforce base ang gagawin,” he said.

Filipino scientists in WPS

Medina said they are also supporting the two-week biological and oceanographic research study that the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) is carrying out in the disputed region with the BFAR and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The UP-MSI will be assessing the marine life in the Kalayaan municipality and its role in supporting food security in the country.

“There is a research vessel that will go to the WPS. This effort is an initiative of the National Coast Watch Council (NCWC) through the NTFWPS, and we are supporting it,” he said.

The group will be using the BRP Lapu-Lapu, a BFAR multi-mission offshore vessel that was built in Navotas City and commission into the BFAR fleet two years ago.

The UP-MSI will be utilizing its own research vessel “Kasarinlan”, which will sail to the disputed region for the first time.

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is the chief of correspondents of Palawan News. She covers defense, politics, tourism, health, and sports stories. She loves to travel and explore different foods.