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US, Japan and Indonesia put more pressure on China over China-Philipines disputed reef

March 30, 2021 | 15:43

More pressures raised on China by US, Japan and Indonesia over its activities on South China Sea, after the ongoing tensions with the Philipines over a disputed reef last week.

china hoist with its own petard when warning philippine fighter aircraft in the bien dong sea south china sea China hoist with its own petard when warning Philippine fighter aircraft in the Bien Dong Sea (South China Sea)
philippines sends fighter aircraft over chinese vessels in bien dong sea south china sea Philippines sends fighter aircraft over Chinese vessels in Bien Dong Sea (South China Sea)
china announces further military exercises in bien dong sea China announces further military exercises in Bien Dong Sea

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted on Monday morning that the US "stands with our ally, the Philippines" in the face of what he called China's "maritime militia" amassing at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands. "We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order," he wrote.

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Satellite imagery showing Chinese vessels anchored in lines at Whitsun Reef. Photo: EPA-EFE

Meanwhile, the Japanese and Indonesian defence ministers agreed at a meeting on Sunday to send a message that their two countries would strongly oppose any action by China that could escalate tensions in the contested regional waterway. According to Japan’s Nobuo Kishi, this will include a boost to their defence cooperation and a joint exercise in the South China Sea, according to South China Morning Post.

The escalating pressure follows a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing lodged last week by Manila, which said more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels it believed were crewed by militias had been moored at the reef since March 7. Beijing has denied the presence of any maritime militia, but reiterated China’s claim to the reef.

The reef is also claimed by Vietnam, which calls it Da Ba Dau. Hanoi has said the Chinese vessels are infringing on its sovereignty.

The Philippines' air force has been holding air patrols over Chinese fishing vessels on the reef. Meanwhile, their air force has made repeated calls to Beijing for their withdrawal from the area, Al Jazeera reported.

In response to the Chinese vessels, the Philippines foreign ministry has filed a diplomatic protest against China while the Philippine navy and coast guard ships have been deployed in the area to monitor the situation.

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South China Sea | Photo: Reuters

"We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines," said Philippines defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

An international tribunal at The Hague in 2016 supported the Philippines' claim to the reef as part of its exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the ruling was rejected by Beijing, which claims more than 90 per cent of the disputed South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.

Beijing's rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South Sea has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific.

Philippines deploys air force as tensions over Chinese ships rise

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Representative photo

The Philippines’ air force has been conducting daily aerial patrols over Chinese fishing vessels moored near a disputed reef, the country’s defence chief said, as he repeated a call to Beijing for their withdrawal from the area.

The diplomatic row was touched off earlier this month when some 220 boats were first spotted at the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef, west of Palawan Island, Al Jazeera reported.

The Philippines ordered China to recall the vessels, describing their presence as an incursion into its sovereign territory. But China, which claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, said the flotilla is made up of fishing vessels sheltering from bad weather.

The Philippine foreign ministry has filed a diplomatic protest, while several countries – including the United States and Australia – have expressed concern over the renewed tension in the region.

Philippine navy and coast guard ships have been deployed to the area to monitor the situation, in addition to the aerial patrols, according to the defence secretary, Delfin Lorenzana.

“We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines,” Lorenzana said late on Saturday.

Beijing often invokes its so-called nine-dash line to justify its claimed historic rights over most of it, and has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared this assertion as without basis.

On Thursday, spokesman Harry Roque said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had expressed concern over the presence of the vessels to the Chinese ambassador in Manila.

Duterte is being pressed to take a stronger stand against the Chinese government in the face of a separate revelation of “significant construction activity” by China at an artificial island built on top of Subi Reef, also within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“The volume of changes is significant, and may indicate the early phases of major construction on Subi Reef,” according to Simularity, a US-based technology firm that studied satellite images in the South China Sea.

Duterte has fostered warmer ties with China since taking office in 2016 in exchange for greater economic cooperation with its superpower neighbour.

But the shift has failed to stem Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, or unlock much of the billions of dollars of promised trade and loans.

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