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|This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the South China Sea. Photo: AP|
The defence chief cited the continued presence of Chinese vessels that Manila believes are manned by militias in disputed parts of the strategic waterway.
“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 was cited by Reuters, 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.
|A fleet of Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef has sparked a diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing Handout National Task Force-West Philippine Sea. Photo: AFP/File|
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 April 1, 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.
|Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Photo: Reuters|
Chinese Embassy says it is “completely normal”
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.”
An international tribunal invalidated China’s claim to 90 percent 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 April 4 statement.
US’s support for the Philippines
The United States has expressed support for the Philippines, its long-time treaty ally, and accused China of using “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region.” Beijing denied the vessels were part of a maritime militia, the AP reported.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has nurtured friendly ties with Beijing since taking office in 2016 and has been criticized for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with an international arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s historic claims to virtually the entire South China Sea./.
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