The Philippines has accused China of aggressively colonizing the South China Sea, as fears of a major conflict between the two countries mount.
It comes as a US carrier strike group, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt, returned to the area for the second time in less than two months.
In the past two weeks, around 220 Chinese paramilitary ships, manned by maritime militias, have “buffed” around a disputed reef in the South China Sea, with the Philippines warning that “incursions” could “spark unwanted hostilities.” . harshest comments yet from Manila.
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China maintains that the boats are simply fishing boats taking refuge in the area due to poor sea conditions, but they have not fished and the weather has been good. They also turn on powerful lights at night. The Philippine government says the ships are part of China’s maritime militia and are manned by reservists operating under the command of the Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The ships are moored at Whitsun Reef within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and there are fears that Chinese ships will attempt to reclaim the reefs. The Philippine defense minister warned that Beijing also plans to occupy and assert its control over more contested territories.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern to the Chinese ambassador about Chinese ships concentrating in the South China Sea, and Vietnam also urged Beijing to respect its maritime sovereignty. On Tuesday, Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi expressed strong concern to his Chinese counterpart about the raids.
The reef is part of the Spratly Islands, one of the major disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea, about 200 miles west of the Philippine province of Palawan. The Philippines says that the offshore region is part of its territory, but it is claimed in whole or in part by China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
An international court annulled China’s claim on 90% of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing does not recognize the ruling. China has built islands in the disputed waters in recent years, putting landing strips on some of them. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claim parts of the sea.
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Meanwhile, the USS Theodore Roosevelt also sailed into the South China Sea for “routine operations”, marking the second time it has appeared in the disputed waters in less than two months. The group of aircraft carriers entered the South China Sea on April 4. The unit will conduct various exercises while in the area, ranging from anti-submarine drills to “coordinated tactical training.”
At the same time, the Chinese First Carrier Group has started exercises near Taiwan and has said that such exercises will be regular. The Chinese Navy said the carrier group, led by Liaoning, the country’s first aircraft carrier to be put into active service, was conducting “routine” drills in the waters near Taiwan.
The goal is “to enhance their ability to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests,” he said. “Similar exercises will be held on a regular basis in the future,” the Chinese Navy added, without elaborating.
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China’s statement follows the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense report on a new incursion by the Chinese Air Force into the island’s air defense identification zone on Monday. He said he had “a complete understanding” of the situation in the air and at sea surrounding Taiwan and that he was “properly handling” the matter.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is overseeing a renewal of the island’s army, launching new offensive equipment such as stealth “carrier killer” corvettes in an attempt to deter any Chinese aggression.