On Sunday, the Philippines declared that over 135 Chinese maritime militia ships were densely congregating near a reef claimed by Manila in the contentious South China Sea. The heightened presence of these vessels was termed “alarming” by Philippine authorities.
— Reuters (@Reuters) December 3, 2023
The presence of Chinese ships, ostensibly identified as fishing boats, near Whitsun Reef, referred to as Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippines, has expanded since November 13. On that date, 111 of these vessels were initially detected, as highlighted in a statement by Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela.
Whitsun Reef, situated in the Spratly Island chain approximately 325 kilometers (200 miles) west of Palawan Island in the Philippines, is a contested territory also claimed by China and Vietnam. Notably, it is over 1,000 kilometers away from China’s closest landmass, Hainan Island.
Whitsun Reef is located within the internationally acknowledged exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, which spans 200 nautical miles (230 miles) beyond a nation’s territorial sea. Manila asserts that it holds the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources within this zone.
The Philippine Coast Guard revealed that authorities instructed them to conduct a maritime patrol to confront and record the unauthorized presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels. Manila described this situation as an “alarming development.” However, the Coast Guard received no response to radio challenges during the operation.
The occurrence bore resemblance to an incident in March 2021 when Beijing dispatched over 200 maritime militia vessels to the area for several weeks, disregarding Manila’s calls for them to vacate the reef.
During that standoff, the United States, bound by a mutual defense pact with the Philippines, supported Manila’s demand for the Chinese fishing flotilla to depart. The U.S. accused China of employing its “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region.”
China dismissed that request, maintaining its claim over the offshore territory.
The escalating tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea in recent months, marked by incidents like collisions and near-collisions at sea near crucial military outposts, have heightened concerns that the dispute might escalate into a full-fledged conflict.
Under the so-called nine-dash line, Beijing asserts control over approximately 90% of the South China Sea. However, this stance contradicts a July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which invalidated a significant portion of these claims.
Beijing refuses to acknowledge the ruling, dismissing it as “a piece of waste paper.”