By Deighton Acuin and Archie Villaflores

PHOTO: Canadian Inquirer/PCOO

Malacañang said Monday it is letting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) address the reported deployment of more than 200 Chinese militia vessels to the West Philippine Sea, adding its focus, for now, is the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a Palace briefing the DFA already filed a diplomatic protest against China over alleged vessel deployment.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea disclosed some 220 Chinese vessels, believed to be operated by Chinese maritime militia, were sighted in a line formation at Julian Felipe Reef on March 7, citing reports from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

The reef is a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.

It is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf, over which the country enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources which encompass both living resources, such as fish, and non-living resources such as oil and natural gas.

"Well, naprotesta na po 'yan ng DFA matapos makumpirma ni National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon,” Roque said.

"Hinahayaan ko muna sa kanila. Nakatutok po tayo sa COVID,” Roque added.

The same day, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobajana said that based on the latest information, the vessels are still in the reef.

In 2013, the Philippines challenged China’s legal basis for its expansive claim before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, and won the case in a landmark award in 2016 after the tribunal invalidated Beijing’s assertions.

However, China did not recognize the ruling, saying the claims have a historical basis and “indisputable.”

China is among the donors of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, which is currently experiencing a significant surge in the number of infections.