Chinese ships have “swarmed” a reef in a contested region of the South China Sea, sparking a diplomatic crisis with the Philippines.
The Philippine military says it has discovered illegally built structures on the Union Banks, a series of reefs in the South China sea.
The find comes after two hundred ships — first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef around 320 kilometres west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea — “swarmed” the area.
The fleet of Chinese ships that sparked the diplomatic row is now scattered across the contested Spratly Islands.
The Philippines has forcefully condemned Beijing’s “unlawful presence” in the area.
Manila has ordered Beijing to withdraw the ships, calling their presence an incursion into its sovereign territory.
ABS-CBN correspondent Chiara Zambrano flew over the Calderon, Johnson and Mischief Reefs.
“I’ve flown over some of the artificial islands of China when they were still being built. So see them now, completed, is both chilling and sobering,” she said.
‘Illegal’ structures in the South China Sea
China — which claims almost the entirety of the resource-rich sea — has claimed the vessels are fishing ships sheltering from bad weather.
But Manila insists they are from Beijing’s Maritime Militia, frequently accused of conducting covert military operations in the area.
Military chief-of-staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said in a statement that the structures were illegal.
“The Laws of the Sea gives the Philippines indisputable and exclusive rights over the area. These constructions and other activities, economic or otherwise, are prejudicial to peace, good order, and security of our territorial waters,” Lt. Gen. Sobejana said.
“We have already updated our higher civilian authorities such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Defense about these offences to our sovereignty.”
Philippines aerial and sea patrols this week recorded 44 of the Chinese-flagged boats still at the boomerang-shaped reef, said a task force charged with monitoring the disputed waters.
Philippine aircraft conducting surveillance missions in the area have been bombarded with radio challenges from their Chinese counterparts demanding that they leave what was described as a “Chinese reef”.
One aircraft was told by the Chinese to leave so as “to avoid any move that may cause misunderstanding.”
Chinese vessels ‘swarming’
Around 210 vessels were now “swarming” other reefs and islands in the area, it said, expressing “deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence of the Chinese Maritime Militia”.
The Philippine military said it could not confirm if 92 vessels spotted at Chigua Reef and 84 at Gaven Reef were part of the original flotilla.
Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its claims over most of the South China Sea, and has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared this assertion as without basis.
It has transformed reefs in the Spratly archipelago into islands, installing military facilities and equipment on them.
One of them is Mischief Reef — which the Philippines also claims — where the task force said four Chinese navy vessels were spotted during patrols.
Several countries, including the United States, have expressed concern at the renewed tension in the region
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef.
“We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.”
– with AFP