Manila (4/4 – 55.56). The presence of China’s “maritime militia” near a South China Sea reef shows Beijing’s intent to occupy more disputed areas, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement on Sunday.
China has “done this before” in other contested areas like Scarborough Shoal and is “brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty,” Lorenzana said. He was reacting to a statement from China’s embassy in Manila on Saturday, which described waters around the Whitsun Reef — where hundreds of Chinese vessels were spotted early last month — as “traditional fishing grounds” and “part of China’s Nansha Islands.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila responded to Lorenzana’s comments, saying it was “completely normal” for Chinese vessels to fish in the area and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. It added, “Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities.”
Lorenzana’s remarks signal a tougher stance from the Philippines government. It had initially issued a formal diplomatic protest to China over the matter, saying that the ships’ presence raised concerns on overfishing and safety of navigation. In a separate statement on Saturday, Lorenzana also refuted China’s earlier response that those vessels were sheltering from the wind, saying the the weather in the area has been good.
The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has in recent years been building friendly ties with China while keeping its alliance with the U.S. The U.S. in late March expressed concerns over the presence of Chinese fishing vessels near the disputed reef, saying Beijing uses “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations.”
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas) in the West Philippine Sea,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement, using the local name for the South China Sea.
It was the second hostile statement by Lorenzana in two days as he repeated calls by the Philippines for the Chinese boats to leave Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, located within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Chinese diplomats have said the boats anchored near the reef – numbering more than 200 based on initial intelligence gathered by Philippine patrols – were sheltering from rough seas and that no militia were aboard.
On Saturday, Lorenzana said there were still 44 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef despite improved weather conditions.
“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no reason to stay there,” he said.
An international tribunal invalidated China’s claim to 90% of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing does not recognise the ruling and has built artificial islands in the disputed waters equipped with radar, missiles batteries and hangars for fighter jets.
“They have done this (occupy disputed areas) before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and at Panganiban Reef, brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law,” Lorenzana said in his Sunday statement.