Philippines deploys more patrol boats amid break with China

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippine military ordered more Navy ships to be deployed for “sovereignty patrols” in the South China Sea, where a Chinese flotilla has swarmed around a disputed reef and ignored Manila’s demand. to leave the area.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked about 200 Chinese ships that he described as militia ships to immediately leave the Whitsun Reef, a shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of the city. from Bataraza in the western Philippine province of Palawan. China ignored the call, insisting that it owns the offshore territory and that ships are sheltering from rough seas.

The military chief, General Cirilito Sobejana, ordered the deployment of additional navy ships to reinforce the country’s “maritime sovereignty patrols” in the disputed waters, the military said Thursday.

He did not say how close the ships of the Philippine navy would be maneuvered to the Chinese ships, whose presence Lorenzana has described as “incursion” and “provocative action to militarize the area.”

“With the increase in the naval presence in the area, we seek to reaffirm to our people the firm and unwavering commitment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to protect and defend them from harassment and ensure that they can enjoy their rights over the rich fishing area of ​​the country. , ”Said the military spokesman, Major General Edgard Arévalo, in a statement.

The United States said Tuesday that it is backing the Philippines in the new dispute with Beijing, accusing China of using “the maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations, undermining peace and security in the region.”

The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest, but China insisted it owns the reef, which it calls Niué Jiao, and said Chinese ships converged on the area to avoid rough waters. The United States, however, said that “Chinese ships have been moored in this area for many months in increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.”

Beijing denied that the ships were maritime militias. “Any speculation on this does not help at all, but causes unnecessary irritation,” the Chinese embassy said on Monday.

The Philippine government says the reef is within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone over which it “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resource.”

Philippine military officials discussed the impasse with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Wednesday and relayed Lorenzana’s demand that Chinese ships leave the reef, which Manila calls Julián Felipe, Arevalo said.

President Rodrigo Duterte affirmed Manila’s position in a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, said presidential spokesman Harry Roque, but did not report any resolution.

Greg Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US-based think tank that closely monitors land conflicts, said more Chinese fishing vessels and militiamen had recently frequented the Whitsun Reef on the northeast edge of Union. Banks, an atoll where China maintains two bases. Vietnam, which also claims the area, has four bases.

“This deployment to Whitsun Reef is not new, but the numbers are way up,” Poling told The Associated Press.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich and occupied South China Sea for decades.

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