MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippine military is sending light fighter jets to fly over hundreds of Chinese vessels in disputed waters in the South China Sea, its defense minister said, reiterating its demand that the flotilla be immediately withdrawn.
International concern is growing over what the Philippines has described as a “swarming and threatening presence” of more than 200 Chinese vessels that Manila believes were manned by maritime militias.
The ships were moored at Whitsun Reef within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Philippine military planes were dispatched daily to monitor the situation, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement Saturday night.
Lorenzana said the army will also strengthen its naval presence in the South China Sea to conduct “sovereignty patrols” and protect Filipino fishermen.
“Our air and maritime assets are ready to protect our sovereignty and sovereign rights,” Lorenzana said.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has been said that the boats at Whitsun Reef were fishing boats taking refuge in rough seas and that there were no militias on board.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reaffirmed to China’s Ambassador Huang Xilian that the Philippines won a landmark arbitration case in 2016, which made its sovereign rights clear amid rival claims from China, his spokesman said last week.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which at least $ 3.4 trillion of annual trade passes.
Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Stephen Coates