Philippine government officials on Saturday released pictures of what they said were 220 Chinese vessels moored at the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, close to the western Philippine province of Palawan in the South China Sea on March 7.
“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Sunday, according to state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).
The 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 recognize the decision.
Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had lodged a protest with the Chinese government over the presence of the Chinese vessels, tweeting late Sunday, “Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light.”
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Monday the fishing boats were engaged in routine operations in what China calls the Nansha Islands.
“For a long period of time, Chinese fishing boats have been fishing in adjacent waters. Some ships have been sheltering from the wind. It is very normal. We hope relevant sides could look at this rationally,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
Lorenzana called developments a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area” in a statement reported by the PNA.
The Chinese fishing fleet
China has been accused of using its vast fishing fleets to help assert Beijing’s territorial claims throughout the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea, though China has dismissed the accusations as groundless.
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.
Chinese warships head into Sea of Japan
As Chinese ships were drawing attention in the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army Navy was showing some of its recently acquired muscle in the waters of the Sea of Japan.
“Entering the Sea of Japan shows that the Type 055 has gained the capability to patrol in distant sea regions, and is an indication of the PLA Navy’s progress,” Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, told Global Times.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said reconnaissance craft confirmed the Chinese ships went through the Tsushima Strait, saying it was the first time for Japan’s forces to spot the Type 055 destroyer.
The Type 055 is seen as a key component of China’s rapidly modernizing fleet as the PLA Navy pushes to project its influence farther from the country’s shores.
“This ship in particular has a sophisticated design, stealth features, radars, and a large missile inventory. It is larger and more powerful than most US, Japanese, and South Korean destroyers,” Rand Corp. senior analyst Timothy Heath said in 2018.
After those talks, Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi said the US and Japan “oppose any attempts to alter the status quo in the area including East China Sea and South China Sea.”
Motegi also said the US had reconfirmed its commitment to help Japan defend the Senkakus, a string of disputed islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diayous and claims as its own.
But in the Global Times report, Song, the military expert, said the deployment of the Chinese warships to the Sea of Japan was likely long-planned and routine.
“The PLA’s training is not targeted at Japan or the US, but these countries will likely perceive it that way because they see China as their imaginary enemy,” Song said in the report.
“The PLA needs to boost its combat capability in distant seas to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests in an uncertain and unstable world, with external threats from a small circle led by the US,” Song told Global Times.
CNN’s Jennifer Deaton in Atlanta, Chie Kobayashi in Tokyo, Yasmin Coles in Manila and Beijing bureau contributed to this report
Source : Nbcnewyork