By Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporters

THE PHILIPPINE Defense chief discussed the situation in the South China Sea and regional security developments with his US counterpart on Sunday, according to the country’s military spokesman, amid increased Chinese presence in the disputed waterway.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III are both looking forward to war games that got canceled last year because of a coronavirus pandemic, local military spokesman Arsenio R. Andolong said in a statement sent via Viber.

During the teleconference, Mr. Austin also reiterated the importance of the visiting forces agreement “and hopes that it would be continued.” “Secretary Lorenzana committed to discuss the matter with the President as the final approval lies with him,” Mr. Andolong said.

Mr. Lorenzana also sought the help of Mr. Austin in fast-tracking the delivery of coronavirus vaccines that the government had ordered from Moderna, Inc. Mr. Austin promised to look into the issue and bring it to the attention of the office concerned.

The Philippines has protested the continued presence of what it claims are Chinese militia vessels at Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. China insists the reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe, is part of China’s Nansha Island.

The Philippines should increase surveillance in the South China Sea, while reaching out to international groups and other allies as China tries to militarize the area, according to political analysts.

While filing diplomatic protests may be an “appropriate response,” the government should also keep monitoring the area within its exclusive economics zone, said Jay L. Batongbacal, head of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea

“Letting the world know what is happening in the course of this controversy is also necessary to ensure transparency and also to enable the Philippines to gather diplomatic support from other countries,” he said by telephone.

The Philippines can also take the issue to various global fora such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and denounce China as a state sponsor of “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing without its consent, he said.

China faces trade sanctions if it’s proven that it has been sponsoring illegal fishing in the disputed waterway, Mr. Batongbacal said. “There are economic repercussions.”

The government should also ensure that its navy and coast guard are there to protect Filipino fishermen from harassment since the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US only covers attacks against state vessels, he said. 

Diplomatic protests should be backed by actions, Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University, said in a Zoom Cloud Meetings interview. “Words are not enough.”

The government should also send planes, not just ships, “just to show the Chinese that we’re watching over them,” he said.

Mr. de Castro said the Philippines should renegotiate its visiting forces agreement and fully implement its enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the United States, which will allow American reconnaissance planes to monitor China’s presence in the South China Sea.

“So the consequence of course would be greater American military presence in the South China Sea,” he said. “It is the last thing that the Chinese would want to see.”

Mr. Lorenzana on April 3 urged the remaining 44 Chinese vessels to leave. He said the Chinese had no reason to stay there since the weather had improved.

The Chinese Embassy said the waters around the reef had been “a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years.” It also said Philippines authorities should avoid “unprofessional remarks.”

Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who heads the University of the Philippines Political Science Department, said the Philippines should mobilize its resources to confront China.

Agencies such as the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources bureau, police units and the coast guard should be involved in the conflict.

“The narrative that the only option we have apart from not confronting China in the West Philippine Sea is going to war with China is false,” Mr. Kraft said, referring to parts of the sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“Vietnam has shown that not backing down in a confrontation is not going to lead to war — some tension or even violence perhaps, but not necessarily war,” he added.

Ronald U. Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo De Manila University’s School of Government, said the latest expansion of China in the disputed territory is “the result of mismanagement and bad governance.”

“These threats notwithstanding, our vulnerability right now is self-inflicted,” he said in an e-mail, citing President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s alleged silence on the issue.

“In periods of crisis — and clearly we have one right now with the pandemic and the blatant security threat posed by the Chinese incursion into our territory — leadership plays a key role in setting the tone, direction and forcefulness of our nation’s response,” he said.

Mr. Mendoza said only Mr. Duterte could mobilize both public and private resources and trigger the needed international support so the country can respond and decisively.

“We are facing security threats at a time when our health situation is at its worst,” he said. “Duterte’s absence shows a lack of direction, indecisiveness and vulnerability for our nation.”

Mr. Duterte earlier said the Philippines would stand by its rights but he did not see the need to use force against the Chinese maritime militias occupying Whitsun Reef, according to his spokesman.

Mr. Duterte thinks the sea dispute could be resolved through peaceful means, Presidential Spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. said last week.