On March 31, the Philippine Government said a swarm of Chinese vessels at reefs and islands in the disputed South China Sea has increased to more than 250, and it amplified its demand for the Chinese regime to remove them immediately.
Over 10 days earlier, the Philippine military detected about 200 vessels displaying the Chinese flag anchored at the disputed Whitsun Reef—without doing any fishing. The Philippine government believes they are the Chinese regime’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM).
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on his Chinese counterparts to withdraw the vessels from the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters.
The United States also expressed concern over the situation. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called out China’s militarization at the South China Sea, saying it violates international laws at the NATO meeting on March 23. On March 28 he tweeted in support of the Philippines.
The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at WhitsunReef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 28, 2021
The Chinese regime denies the vessels are maritime militia ships, claiming they are fishing boats. Its spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a press conference on March 22, “Chinese fishing boats have been fishing in the waters near the reef all along. Recently, due to maritime situation, some fishing boats have been taking shelter from the wind near [Whitsun Reef], which is quite normal.”
However, two experts pointed out, “Both in February and March this year, identified PAFMM vessels transmitting automatic identification system (AIS) signals were present in Whitsun’s lagoon.”
On March 31, the Philippine government said that the Chinese militia vessels did not leave but increased to more than 250 and spread to 6 disputed islands and reefs of the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said it “expresses deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence of the Chinese Maritime Militia, which did not pull out and have remained in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef and are now in other areas of the Kalayaan Island Group in the Municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan,” in its statement.
The Task Force reiterates the demand in a statement, “The Philippines calls on China to immediately withdraw these vessels flying its flag. … Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China’s assertion of its so-called ‘indisputable integrated sovereignty’ over almost all of the South China Sea.”
The Task Force said military patrols also located four Chinese naval ships at Mischief Reef, one of several submerged natural features in Spratly, which China has reclaimed and transformed into a military base.
The Philippines claims the resource-rich Spratly is its territory, citing the island chain is within its EEZ. China, Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China), Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also claim sovereignty over it.
In 2016, the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea was in favor of the Philippines’ EEZ claim over China’s historical claim. However, China rejected the ruling and has been building artificial islands in the disputed waters and military facilities on disputed islands it occupied.