THE PHILIPPINES on Wednesday said it had sighted three Chinese vessels, one of them a warship, in the waters of the northernmost province of Batanes.

The vessels were spotted as the Philippines and the United States were holding joint military exercises in the areas on May 1, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Spokesman Armand Balillo said in a statement.

He said PCG vessel BRP Melchora Aquino engaged in radio challenges with the two unidentified China-flagged vessels.

“While the People’s Liberation Army Navy ship, which was positioned farther away than the two other Chinese ships, had also left the area,” he added.

The joint drills between the Philippines and the US named Balikatan, which involved 16,000 Filipino and American troops, started last month and will end on May 10.

Batanes is only 376 kilometers away from Taiwan, a US ally that has governed independently of China since 1949. Chinese vessels are mostly seen within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety.

Civilian coalition Atin Ito on Wednesday said it will conduct its second mission to the West Philippine Sea on May 14-17 as it pushes for an “active citizenship model” to safeguard the country’s territorial integrity.

The mission coincides with the farmers and fisherfolk month and the celebration of May as the month of Mary, revered by Filipino Catholic seafarers as their guide and protector in the sea, Edicio Dela Torre, President of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and co-convenor of Atin Ito, said at a news conference.

The mission will be participated in by 200 fisherfolk, volunteers, foreign and local journalists and other observers.

“This is not a sightseeing excursion to seek out Chinese marine vessels or a provocation to incite conflict. It is a legitimate exercise of Filipino citizens within our own territory,” Akbayan Party President Rafaela David said. 

“Our approach is grounded in reclaiming what rightfully belongs to us, guided by international law and diplomatic principles,” she said.

The Chinese Coast Guard backed by maritime militia ships has been firing water cannons at Philippine government-contracted boats delivering supplies to a Navy outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, which is about 240 kilometers off the coast of Palawan province and about 900 kilometers from the nearest major Chinese landmass. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza