This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China has not withdrawn all of its vessels moored at a reef within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, the Philippines said Wednesday, as it amplified its demand that Beijing pull out “Maritime Militia” ships from disputed South China Sea waters.
As of Monday, 44 Chinese Maritime Militia ships “remain moored, anchored and stationary at Julian Felipe Reef,” the government’s National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said in a statement, referring to Whitsun Reef by its Philippine name. The West Philippine Sea is also the name that Manila uses for the South China Sea.
The reef is about 175 nautical miles off the Philippine island province of Palawan and within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The Philippines calls on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag,” the NTF-WPS said, adding that it has “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over a swath of islands and reefs in the Spratly Group, which Manila calls Kalayaan, and the waters surrounding them.
The task force also “expresses deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence (swarming) of the Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM), which did not pull out and have remained in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef and are now in other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group in the Municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan,” according to the statement.
While only 44 ships were lingering at Whitsun, others had “dispersed” to other areas of the Spratlys – 115 at Kennan Reef, 45 around Thitu Island and another 50 among Mischief, Fiery Cross, and Subi reefs – the task force said.
The task force said military patrols also located four Chinese naval ships at Mischief Reef, one of several submerged natural features, which China has reclaimed and transformed into military installations.
The Philippine military began keeping a closer watch following a report earlier this month that about 220 “Chinese militia vessels” had moored at Whitsun Reef. It deployed naval and aerial assets last week to monitor the region.
A week ago, Philippine military representatives met with their Chinese counterparts to convey a government demand that the ships leave Whitsun Reef. Chinese military officials responded that the ships were fishing boats taking shelter because of inclement weather.
On March 22, the Chinese embassy in Manila rejected Philippine allegations that hundreds of Beijing’s militia ships were clustering in Philippine-claimed waters, after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest with China over the matter earlier this month.
“Recently, some Chinese fishing vessels took shelter near Niu’e Jiao due to rough sea conditions,” the embassy said in a statement then, referring to Whitsun Reef by its Chinese name.
“It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged.”
In its Wednesday statement, the task force said the Philippines “stands by its observation that these so-called fishing vessels are maritime militia,” and their presence “poses a threat to the peaceful exercise of the sovereign rights of the Philippines in its EEZ.”
It mentioned a July 2016 U.N.-backed tribunal’s ruling that affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea.
China has rejected the ruling and escalated its military build-up in the waterway, deploying ships and aircraft to the region.
Six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.
“Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China’s assertion of its so-called ‘indisputable integrated sovereignty’ over almost all of the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea,” the task force said.
ASEAN ministers to go to Beijing
Even as Manila has called for Beijing to move its ships, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced he had invited Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, and Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to visit Wednesday through Friday.
“Through this visit, China hopes to step up communication with [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries on regional and international situation, implement important consensus of the leadership, strengthen strategic mutual trust, deepen anti-epidemic and development cooperation, boost quality [One Belt, One Road] cooperation, scale new heights in bilateral relations and China-ASEAN relationship, and better safeguard regional peace, stability, and development,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday.
The Chinese announcement came two days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s position supporting Manila, a longtime ally.
“We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order,” Blinken said in a tweet.
Officials from Canada, the U.K., Japan, and Australia have issued similar statements supporting the Philippines’ position regarding Whitsun Reef.