Nation on edge over 200 Chinese ships

The Philippine defence chief has demanded more than 200 Chinese vessels leave a South China Sea reef claimed by Manila, calling their presence a “provocative action of militarising the area”.

About 220 Chinese vessels – which Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said are manned by militias – were seen moored at Whitsun Reef on March 7, with the vessels photographed by the Philippine coastguard side-by-side in one of the most hotly contested areas of the strategic waterway.

The reef lies within the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone, the country’s cross-government task force said on the weekend.

“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” Mr Lorenzana said in a statement, adding that the Philippines would uphold its sovereign rights.

Last night, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted that the nation has filed a diplomatic protest over the flotilla’s presence.

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For decades, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have all contested China’s claim of 90 per cent of the South China Sea, with tension increasing in recent years.

While maintaining its intentions are peaceful, Beijing has expanded its military presence and continues to claim an area known as the “nine-dash line”.

The nation has also built islands in the disputed waters, putting airstrips on some of them.

Earlier this year, the Philippines protested at a new Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a “threat of war”.

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Critics have repeatedly called on President Rodrigo Duterte to stand up to China’s aggressive behaviour, with the leader defending his non-confrontational approach toward Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019.

“When Xi says, ‘I will fish’, who can prevent him?” Mr Duterte said.

“If I send my marines to drive away the Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you not one of them will come home alive.”

Chinese “fishing fleets” have long been suspected of being used as maritime militias to help assert Beijing’s territorial claims, with Philippine military chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana saying their “utmost priority remains to be the protection of our citizens in the area, particularly our fishermen, through increased maritime patrols”.


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