BEIJING (AP) – Bad weather has caused more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels to anchor on a reef claimed by the Philippines, Beijing said Monday, dodging accusations by Manila of a move by the vast South China Sea maritime militia to assert control of the area. .
However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters in a briefing on Monday that Whitsun Reef was part of the Spratly Islands, one of the major archipelagos in the South China Sea, that China it states practically in its entirety.
“Recently, due to sea conditions, some Chinese fishing boats have taken shelter from the wind near Whitsun Reef. I think it is very normal and I hope that all parties can see it rationally, ”Hua said at the daily briefing.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked China on Sunday to “stop this incursion and immediately remember these ships that violate our maritime rights and invade our sovereign territory.”
The presence of the boats was a “provocative action to militarize the area,” Lorenzana said.
A Philippine government watchdog overseeing the disputed region released images on March 7 of the boats moored side by side in one of the most contested areas of the strategic waterway. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted Sunday night that the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest over the Chinese presence.
The reef, which Manila calls Julián Felipe, is a shallow, boomerang-shaped coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of the city of Bataraza in the western Philippine province of Palawan. It is within the country’s exclusive economic zone, over which the Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resource,” the government watchdog said.
For decades, China, the Philippines and four other governments have been locked in a tense territorial confrontation over the resource-rich South China Sea, through which an estimated $ 5 trillion in international trade travels annually.
China’s fishing fleets have long followed government orders to help the coast guard and navy enforce the country’s maritime claims. They have also been accused of massive overfishing and coral reef degradation, backed by a Chinese military that has built airfields and missile bases on artificial islands built by piling sand and concrete over fragile marine ecosystems.
China has refused to acknowledge a 2016 ruling by a Hague court that invalidated nearly all of China’s historic claims to the South China Sea, and routinely protests the presence of other countries’ navies in what is viewed as overwhelmingly. International waters. China says it does not restrict the right of way through the area, but has repeatedly clashed with other claimants over resource exploitation, military activities and even projects to explore ancient marine shipwrecks.