The Philippines is calling on Beijing to remove some 220 vessels moored at a reef in the South China Sea – the latest dispute between China and its maritime neighbors over claims of sovereignty in the strategic body of water.
Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the fishing boats were observed anchored side by side on March 7 at the Whitsun Reef, also known as the Julian Felipe Reef – a shallow coral reef about 200 miles west of Palawan island. He said they were believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel.
The Philippines, China and Vietnam all claim the reef as their own.
"These are territories well within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS) where Filipinos have the sole right to resources under international law and the 2016 arbitral ruling," Lorenzana said in a statement.
Beijing has refused to accept a tribunal's ruling that invalidated 90% of China's claims in the South China Sea.
"We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory," Lorenzana said.
Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said the Philippine military had conducted air and maritime patrols in the region to verify its claims. He said Manila's naval forces were prepared to take "appropriate actions not limited to filing diplomatic protests."
The Philippine military "will not renege from our commitment to protect and defend our maritime interest within the bounds of the law," Arevalo said.
Beijing responded by saying that the Chinese fishing boats had taken shelter in the area due to sea conditions.
"I think this is very normal, and hope all sides can view this rationally," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday.
In recent years, China has increasingly flexed its muscles in the resource-rich South China Sea, adding its own infrastructure – including airstrips — to some disputed islands and reefs and stepping up maritime patrols in the region through which an estimated one-third of global trade, amounting to more than $3 trillion, passes annually.
China's expansive claims have put it at odds with not only the Philippines but also Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, which claim parts of the sea as well.
Since the start of the Biden administration, the United States has conducted multiple "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea, sending ships near disputed islands to demonstrate "tangible, operational challenges against excessive maritime claims."
Last month, two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers trained together in the sea in an apparent signal to China.