A diplomatic spat between China and the Philippines has further flared up in the disputed South China Sea, with Manila scrambling war planes.
Hundreds of Chinese vessels, which the Philippines claim are linked to China’s navy, are moored inside Manila’s 320-kilometre exclusive zone.
As tension rises, the Philippines is now sending light military aircraft to fly over the 200-plus boat flotilla, at the Whitsun Reef.
Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana wants the Chinese vessels to leave immediately.
“Our air and sea assets are ready to protect our sovereignty and sovereign rights,” Mr Lorenzana told Reuters.
China has insisted the vessels are harmless fishing boats and just seeking shelter from rough seas.
The Whitsun Reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands archipelago, is claimed by both governments.
The Philippines maintains that it falls inside the country’s exclusive economic zone.
A 2016 ruling by a United Nations tribunal dismissed China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, though Beijing has refused to recognise the decision.
China has been accused of using its vast fishing fleets to help assert Beijing’s territorial claims throughout the 2.1 million square kilometre South China Sea, though China has dismissed the accusations as groundless.
In a 2019 report on the fleet, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said “a significant number of fishing vessels in the area forgo fishing full-time to serve as a direct arm of the state,” and that fishing boats “stand at least as much chance of triggering a violent clash as do the region’s armed forces.”
While the Whitsun Reef still remains outside of Beijing’s direct control, China has unilaterally transformed other reefs in the Spratly chain into man-made islands with substantial infrastructure and military fortifications, including missiles, runways and weapons systems.
And the Chinese fishing fleet has been seen pressuring other Philippine claims in the Spratlys.
For example, from early 2019 through March 2020 China maintained a presence of maritime militia vessels around Thitu Island, the largest Philippine occupied island in the Spratly archipelago, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
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