AND THEN THERE ARE 28 Philippine military officials say only 28 of the more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels—here seen up close in a satellite image—remained anchored at Julian Felipe Reef, which China calls Whitsun Reef, as of Sunday. —REUTERS (Photo grabbed on Inquirer post)/CTTO.

MANILA, Philippines — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin III discussed on Sunday the fleet of Chinese ships still anchored at Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone since early March when they were first spotted there.

The two officials made their phone call ahead of Monday’s resumption of the Balikatan joint exercises between the American and Philippine military, which was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even before the pandemic, President Duterte, who had been critical of Washington’s stand against his drug war policy, had been ambivalent about the conduct of joint military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which provides the legal framework for US troops to operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Mr. Duterte is also seen as being careful not to antagonize Beijing, which he regards as a friend and ally despite China’s occupation of Philippine waters.

In a statement, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said “Secretaries Austin and Lorenzana discussed the situation in the South China Sea and the recent massing of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef.”

Over 200 ships were seen early in March, but according to Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the number was down to 28 as of Sunday.

“Secretary Austin reiterated the US commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Kirby said. (Click here to read more…)