Filipinos and members of the international community are denouncing the occupation by some 220 Chinese maritime militia vessels of waters around the Julian Felipe Reef, 175 nautical miles west of Batarza, Palawan island, within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

Reporting on 20 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said that the AFP Western Command sighted 220 vessels on 7 March, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, moored at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef). Duterte’s secretary of foreign affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said he filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing on 21 March. However, National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. said he was still studying whether to file a diplomatic protest.

Fishers national alliance Pamalakaya denounced the Chinese incursion as a “blatant show of force” that was bordering on military aggression. Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya National Chairperson said, “Monitoring like sitting ducks will not drive away the Chinese vessels from our waters… This is frighteningly alarming and needs an unhesitating response and action from the government.”

He said, “They have no business here as they violate our sovereign rights and cause environmental destruction of our marine resources.”

Echoing various Philippine leaders, Congressman Carlos Zarate called on President Duterte “to strongly denounce China's continued aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea.” He asked, “Is this action of China in exchange for the vaccines they donated to the Philippines?”

Several countries have raised alarm over the presence of Chinese ships on Philippine territory. Foreign affairs officials of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the US variously called out “destabilizing actions” that could undermine peace and stability in the volatile waterway. On 25 March, European Union ambassador to Manila Luc Vernon stressed that the EU “cannot allow countries to unilaterally undermine international law and maritime security in the South China Sea.”

Meanwhile, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines condemned the Duterte government for its inaction in driving away Chinese vessels which are clearly trespassing on Philippine territory. Patnubay de Guia, NDFP spokesperson for Southern Tagalog Region said that China “has no other intention but to occupy and seize Philippine territories.” De Guia said that China employed the same strategy in illegally occupying Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in the West Philippine Sea since 1995.

Secretary of National Defense Gen. Delfin Lorenzana reported on 29 March that President Duterte has already met with Chinese ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian and had requested “if possible, remove the ships from the area.”

China continues to claim that the ships are mere fishing vessels sheltering from rough seas within its own territory. China refuses to recognize the July 2016 International Arbitral Tribunal ruling invalidating China’s claims over the South China Sea including the West Philippine Sea.