Senior officials from United States and the Philippines discussed their concerns over ongoing Chinese activities in the disputed South China Sea during a call on Wednesday, the White House said, amid reports Chinese “militia” ships had fanned out across waters where the Philippines has sovereignty.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the Philippines National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon “agreed that the United States and the Philippines will continue to coordinate closely in responding to challenges in the South China Sea,” according to a White House statement.
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“Sullivan underscored that the United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, and reaffirmed the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea,” said the statement, attributed to National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne.
The discussions followed reports on Wednesday that a fleet of vessels from China’s “maritime militia”, which was the subject of a diplomatic row with Beijing last week, is now scattered in an even wider area within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In a statement, Manila said it “reiterates its assertion of Philippine sovereignty, and sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the islands and the sea lane surrounding them, and “expresses deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence (swarming)” of the ships, “which did not pull out and have remained” in the area.
“The Philippines calls on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag.”
The statement added that the ships “build-up and massing formation” in the area “is hazardous to navigation and safety of life at sea”.
Last week, it was revealed that as many as 200 ships, believed to belong to the Chinese militia, were berthed at at Whitsun Reef, approximately 320 kilometres (175 nautical miles) west of Palawan Island, and within the Philippine EEZ as defined by the International Court of Arbitration.
More ships spotted
Manila had earlier ordered Beijing to withdraw the ships, calling their presence in the area, also referred to as the West Philippine Sea, an incursion into its sovereign territory.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has claimed the vessels are fishing ships sheltering from bad weather.
Manila insists they are from Beijing’s maritime militia, which is frequently accused of conducting covert military operations in the area.
Further Philippine aerial and sea patrols this week recorded 44 of the Chinese-flagged boats remained at the boomerang-shaped reef, said a military task force charged with monitoring the disputed waters.
About 210 vessels were now “swarming” other reefs and islands in the area, it said.
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 its so-called “nine-dash line” to justify its claims over most of the South China Sea and has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision at The Hague that ruled the assertion had no basis.
In recent years, China has transformed reefs in the Spratly archipelago into artificial islands, installing naval and aerial facilities and equipment.
One of them is Mischief Reef – which the Philippines also claims – where the task force said four Chinese navy vessels were spotted during patrols.
In a social media post on Thursday, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin also reiterated that any features within the Philippine EEZ was “ours”, even those with Chinese structures. The “durability and vintage of the structures don’t matter,” he added.
Locsin is expected in Beijing this week for a scheduled meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The Philippine military said on Wednesday that its aircraft also received a radio challenge from the Chinese military during a surveillance mission.
Philippine media on board the flight over Whitsun Reef reported the aircraft was told by the Chinese that it was “approaching a Chinese reef” and should leave so as “to avoid any move that may cause misunderstanding.”
The Philippine military responded saying that it was proceeding with its flight path as scheduled, as it was conducting a patrol within the “Philippine EEZ.”
Several countries, including the US have expressed concern at the renewed tensions in the region. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty obliges both parties to support each other in the event of an incursion by external parties.
Canada, Australia, Japan and others have also voiced concern about China’s intentions.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, a key global trading route that is also rich in natural resources.