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Philipines – Beijing standoff in the disputed sea, US backing Philipines

March 24, 2021 | 12:11

On Tuesday, The United States declared that it would support and back the Philipines in the disrupted South China Sea, where Manila has asked a Chinese fishing flotilla to leave a reef. China ignored the call, insiting that it owns the offshore territory.

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The U.S. Embassy said it shared the concerns of the Philippines and accused China of using maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region, AP News reported.

The US Embassy said it shared the concerns of the Philippines and accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region”.

“We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia,” the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday demanded about 200 Chinese vessels he said were militia boats leave the Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324km) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan.

Philippine officials said the reef, which they call Julian Felipe, is well within the country’s internationally recognised exclusive economic zone, over which the Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources”.

The Philippine coast guard spotted about 220 Chinese vessels moored at the reef, which Beijing and Vietnam also claim, on Mar 7, according to Channel News Asia.

Philippines accuses China of 'incursion' in disputed sea

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A photo from the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun reef in the disputed South China Sea on 7 March. Photograph: Pcg-Ntfwps Handout/EPA

The Philippines on Sunday (Mar 21) accused China of "incursion" after more than 200 militia boats were spotted near a disputed reef in the South China Sea, in a rare rebuke of its superpower neighbour.

The Philippine coast guard detected the boats "in line formation" at the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef about 320km west of Palawan Island on Mar 7, Channel News Asia reported.

"We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.

"This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area. These are territories well within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone."

A government watchdog overseeing the disputed region said about 220 Chinese vessels were seen moored at Whitsun reef, which Beijing also claims, on 7 March. It released pictures of the vessels side by side in one of the most contested areas of the strategic waterway, according to The Guardian.

The foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin, said late on Sunday that the Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the Chinese presence.

The reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, is a boomerang-shaped, shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324km) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. It is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone, over which the Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources”, the government watchdog said.

The large numbers of Chinese boats are “a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation”, it said, although it added that the vessels were not fishing when sighted.

Chinese fishing fleets have long been suspected of being utilised as maritime militias to help assert Beijing’s territorial claims, although China has played down those claims.

Philippine military chief, Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana said the military’s “utmost priority remains to be the protection of our citizens in the area, particularly our fishermen, through increased maritime patrols”.

Chinese embassy officials did not immediately issue any comment. China, the Philippines and four other governments have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich and busy waterway for decades.

Critics have repeatedly criticised President Rodrigo Duterte, who has nurtured friendly ties with Beijing since taking office in 2016, for not standing up to China’s aggressive behaviour and deciding not to immediately demand Chinese compliance with an international arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historic claims to virtually the entire sea. China has refused to recognise the 2016 ruling, which it called “a sham”, and continues to defy it.

“When Xi says ‘I will fish,’ who can prevent him?” Duterte said two years ago as he defended his non-confrontational approach, referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping.

“If I send my marines to drive away the Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you not one of them will come home alive,” Duterte said then, adding that diplomatic talks with Beijing allowed the return of Filipinos to disputed fishing grounds where Chinese forces had previously forced them away.

Duterte has sought infrastructure funds, trade and investment from China, which has also donated and pledged to deliver more Covid-19 vaccines as the Philippines faces an alarming spike in coronavirus infections.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich and busy waterway for decades.

President Rodrigo Duterte would talk to the Chinese ambassador in Manila about the issue, his spokesman, Harry Roque told a news conference.

Duterte has nurtured friendly ties with Beijing since taking office in 2016 and has been criticised for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with an international arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historic claims to virtually the entire sea.

China has refused to recognise the 2016 ruling, which it called “a sham”, and continues to defy it.

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