The Philippine Minister of Defense Delfin Lorenzana announced on March 27, 2021, that the presence of the flotilla, which dates back to at least March 7, 2021, was being monitored by both air and sea assets. 180 to 200 fishing vessels suspected of belonging to the Chinese maritime militia are mooring near Julian Felipe Reef (also known as the Whitsun Reef) in the middle of the South China Sea.
The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) is an armed fishing fleet that has been used since the 1970s as an informal force for Beijing to secure maritime assets in the South and the East China Sea. The PAFMM strategy is usually to mark an area with navigation buoys. Then, temporary constructions presented as “fishing shelters” are built, which soon leave the place to permanent military installations. The Philippines has already lost the Mischief and the Scarborough Reef to the militia.
The Julian Felipe Reef is located 320 km away from the Philippine island of Palawan and is part of the country’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). “We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the Philippine marine resources,” Lorenzana said. “There will be an increased presence of Navy and Coast Guard vessels to conduct sovereignty patrols and protect our fishermen in the western Philippine Sea.”
In a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte formally requested the removal of the Chinese vessels, saying they were “alarming the Filipino people.”
Some of the 12 FA-50 Fighting Eagle fighter jets of the Philippine Air Force were sent to monitor the PAFMM.
The FA-50 Fighting Eagle is a lightweight multi-role fighter jet developed by Korea Aerospace Industries adapted from its T-50 Golden Eagle training jet. It is equipped with a 20mm cannon and can transport an array of air-to-air, air-to-ground missiles, as well as rockets and guided bombs. It can also employ reconnaissance and electronic warfare.
The 12 FA-50 fighters operated by the Philippine Air Force were acquired in 2012. They are flown by the 7th Bulldogs Fighter Squadron, based at Cesar Basa Air Base, near Manila.
China has ongoing territorial disputes with several countries, including the Philippines and Malaysia, around the South China Sea, which it claims is part of its national territory. Recently, China reinforced the Subi Reef to construct a naval air base with a runway of 3,000 meters. The reef is located 24 kilometers (13 nautical miles) from Thitu Island where the Philippines has several military bases.