File photo(ctto)

MANILA – House Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez on Wednesday urged China to pull out all its vessels from the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to avoid heightened tension in the area.

Rodriguez made the appeal in response to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement calling on the Philippines security forces to stop maritime exercises in the South China Sea and to respect Chinese sovereignty over the disputed sea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reprised its claims that it “enjoys sovereignty over Nansha Islands (Spratly) including Zhongye (Thitu) Island and Zhongsha Islands including Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) and their adjacent waters, and exercises jurisdiction in relevant waters.”

Rodriguez said the Nansha Islands or the Spratly Islands, which China claims as its sovereign territory, are part of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Law of the Sea and the ruling of the UN arbitral court.

“We have every right to patrol it, conduct drills there and explore it for its fishery and other natural resources. But they are the ones taking tons and tons of fishes and destroying the environment there,” he said.

Rodriguez said it is China that should not be in the WPS “because that is not part of their EEZ”, noting that the area is about 600 miles from China.

“In contrast, up north, Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc to Filipino fishermen is just 120 miles off the coast of Zambales and Pangasinan. They are in control of it despite the fact that it is within our EEZ,” he said.

He further argued that down south, Julian Felipe Reef, which is 175 miles from Bataraza, Palawan, where China still maintains presence despite repeated protests, “is also part of our EEZ”.

“So they are claiming and occupying a large part of the sea that should exclusively belong to us under international law and illegally taking resources from it. They are the ones complicating the situation, not us,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., for his part, ordered a fresh diplomatic protest against China amid its continued presence within areas under Philippine jurisdiction in the WPS.

“They can say what they want from the Chinese mainland; we continue to assert from our waters by right of international law what we won in The Hague. But we must not fail to protest,” Locsin said over Twitter.

In a separate tweet, Locsin added that enhanced maritime drills could also provide some kind of “clarity” in the area.

“[S]ee what enhanced maritime drills on our part is achieving: clarity. Now they realize what I said is a likelihood: mutual swarming increases the likelihood of mis-encounter that may trigger the MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty). Brinkmanship brings clarity. And fortitude,” he said.

Over the weekend, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources deployed eight capital ships to conduct maritime exercises in the West Philippine Sea as part of efforts to secure its maritime jurisdiction in the area.

Since April 5, the Philippine government has been actively protesting China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in Julian Felipe Reef where a swarm of Chinese vessels was spotted in March 2021.

Under the Duterte administration, the Department of Foreign Affairs has so far lodged 78 diplomatic protests against China. (PNA)