MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine defense chief on March 21 demanded that more than 200 Chinese vessels he said were manned by militias leave a South China Sea reef claimed by Manila, saying their presence was a “provocative action of militarizing the area.”
“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” defense minister Delfin Lorenzana said.
Authorities said the Philippines coast guard had reported that about 220 vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were seen moored on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe Reef.
Foreign minister Teodoro Locsin, when asked whether he would file a diplomatic protest over the boats, told a journalist on Twitter: “Only if the generals tell me. In my watch, foreign policy is the fist in the iron glove of the armed forces.”
The vessels are fishing boats believed to be manned by Chinese military-trained personnel, according to Philippines security officials.
The vessels’ presence in the area raises concern about overfishing and the destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safe navigation, a Philippine cross-government task force said late on March 20.
China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on March 21, while calls to the Chinese embassy in Manila seeking comment went unanswered.
An international tribunal invalidated China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing doesn’t recognize the ruling. The Chinese regime has built islands in the disputed waters in recent years, putting airstrips on some of them.
Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei all claim parts of the sea.
In January, the Philippines protested at a new Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a “threat of war.”
The United States has repeatedly denounced what it called the Chinese regime’s attempts to bully neighbors with competing interests, while Beijing has criticized Washington for what it calls interference in its internal affairs.
The Whitsun Reef is within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, the task force said, describing the site as “a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs.”
The task force vowed to continue “to peacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives on environmental protection, food security and freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.
The Associated Press contributed to this report