Philippines accuses Chinese vessels of ‘swarming’ reef off its coast

More than 135 Chinese vessels seen near Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea, the Philippines coastguard says.

The number of Chinese maritime vessels had increased over the course the past few weeks [Adrian Portugal/Reuters]

More than 135 Chinese vessels were “swarming” a reef off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea, the Philippines coastguard said on Sunday, amid renewed tensions between the two countries.

Coastguard officials described the growing number of boats off the coast of Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe Reef, as an “alarming development”, on Sunday.

The number of Chinese maritime vessels has increased in the past few weeks. When the coastguard deployed two patrol boats to the area, officials noted the number had increased to 135 boats, from the counted 111 on November 13.

“No response was made to the radio challenges issued by the PCG [Philippines Coast Guard] to the CMM vessels which is now estimated to have grown to more than 135 vessels dispersed and scattered within Julian Felipe Reef,” the Manila’s coastguard said.

The Chinese boats were “dispersed and scattered” within the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef more than 1,000km (620 miles) from the nearest major Chinese landmass of Hainan island, and around 320km (200 miles) west of Palawan island of the Philippines.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, including waters and islands close to the shores of its neighbours, and has ignored an international tribunal decision that its assertion has no legal basis.

The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have also staked claims to various islands and reefs in the sea, which is believed to have rich petroleum reserves deep beneath its waters.

This year, China and the Philippines have been involved in a number of incidents, with Manila accusing Beijing of making aggressive efforts to assert its claim to almost the entire South China Sea under its so-called nine-dash line.

Earlier this month, the two countries’ ships were involved in near collisions close to Second Thomas Shoal, which also lies within Manila’s  exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that zone extends 200 nautical miles (about 370km) from a country’s coast.

The Philippines took its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, when China seized control of Scarborough Shoal.

Although the court ruled in the favour of the Philippines, Beijing did not recognise the ruling and stepped up its claims to the waters building artificial islands, expanding military outposts and deploying its coastguard, maritime militia and fishing fleet.

Source: News Agencies