China has been accused of militarizing the contested South China Sea and jeopardizing peace in the region after the Philippines reported sightings of 261 suspected armed fishing vessels and Chinese navy warships, including hundreds within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Philippine Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin Jr. said he had ordered his office to lodge a diplomatic protest against Beijing on Wednesday following the EEZ intrusions, which were reported by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS). The WPS is a designation Manila uses for the eastern part of the South China Sea, where the country has exclusive fishing rights.
Task force patrols on Sunday revealed 240 Chinese maritime militia vessels—part of an armed fishing fleet whose existence is disputed by Beijing—around the South China Sea islands. According to a statement issued Tuesday, 136 Chinese boats were scattered around Gaven Reef and 65 at McKennan Reef, while the remaining vessels were spotted near seven other islands within the EEZ.
NTF-WPS reported an additional 10 maritime militia boats, each roughly 200 feet in length, around the China-controlled Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc or Huangyan Island in Chinese. In the vicinity were two People’s Liberation Army Navy warships and three China Coast Guard vessels.
A pair of Type 22 Houbei-class missile boats, one corvette and a tugboat—spotted around the China-occupied reefs Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi, respectively—made for a total of six PLA Navy ship sightings on the day, said the task force statement. Two more Chinese coast guard vessels also were operating in the territorial sea of the Philippine-controlled Thitu Island, it added.
“All these warships of the PLA Navy contribute to the militarization of the area,” noted Manila’s statement, which estimated the 240-strong maritime militia could be illegally catching a combined 240 tons of fish from Philippine waters every day.
The combined presence of China’s navy, coast guard and maritime militia in the Philippine EEZ “is prejudicial to the peace and security of the region,” it continued. “The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea, and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the EEZ.”
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The Philippine government, which said it demanded the withdrawal of the Chinese vessels, said it was investigating a separate incident captured and reported by a local news crew, who said they were pursued by a China Coast Guard and PLA Navy vessel last week while conducting interviews with Filipino fishermen.
On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused unnamed officials in the Philippines of “hyping up the issue” of China’s fishing vessels in the South China Sea.