Manila and Beijing are locked in an unusually open and sour dispute over what the Philippines is calling the “Swarming and threatening presence” of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats around a reef in the South China Sea.
China’s foreign ministry accused the Philippines of “raising” the issue and said the ships, believed to be part of its maritime militia, “were simply sheltering from the wind.”
Rodrigo Duterte’s government stressed that the weather had been good in recent days, while analysts said similar incidents at sea often preceded China’s construction of permanent structures on reefs and atolls to bolster its maritime claims. .
According to satellite photos and Philippine officials, the Chinese flotilla has been massed since last month around Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, which Filipinos call Julian Felipe Reef.
The Philippines claims the area as part of their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and won an arbitration case against China in 2016 that invalidated Beijing’s claims to historic rights to most of the sea it she scores on cards in her “nine point line”. .
Across the Luzon Strait, China has stepped up its military posture around Taiwan. The United States is concerned that China is flirting with the idea of taking control of Taiwan, which Beijing claims is part of its territory.
In the dispute over Whitsun Reef, Joe Biden’s new administration backed the Philippines, with which the United States has a mutual defense treaty.
“The United States stands alongside our ally the Philippines in the face of the PRC maritime militia gathering in the South China Sea,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday. . “We will always stand by our allies and defend the rules-based international order.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin on Thursday called on China to comply with the 2016 arbitration decision in The Hague.
Duterte, who pivoted foreign policy away from Washington and opened friendlier relations with China that any of its predecessors since taking office in 2016, met with the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines last month to complain about the ships. Manila also sent fighter jets to patrol the area.
This week, Delfin Lorenzana, the Secretary of Defense of the Philippines, said that China showed a “total disregard” for international law which he described as “appalling”.
He added: “His Nine-Dash Line claim is without any factual or legal basis.” The Chinese embassy responded by saying the area was a traditional fishing ground for Chinese vessels, and accused Lorenzana of making “unprofessional remarks that may stir up more irrational emotions.”
Analysts said the dispute had echoes of China’s 1994 occupation Mischief reef, another Spratlys atoll. Originally, China built what it said were fishermen’s shelters, which it then turned into a base.
“This is a continuation of China’s long-standing strategy of employing militias in large numbers to establish de facto control of the waters and reefs around the South China Sea,” he said. said Greg Poling, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. .
“The fact that the Philippine government is not just talking about it, but documenting it and making it public is a big deal.”
The dispute coincides with a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the Philippines that has disrupted government operations. Duterte canceled a regular weekly speech on Wednesday due to the increase in Covid-19 cases that have hit his staff. Lorenzana said he was self-isolating after testing positive for the virus.
This week, Chinese fighter jets entered the air defense identification zones of Japan and Taiwan as a group of carriers led by Liaoning, the older of the two Chinese aircraft carriers, crossed the Miyako Strait near Taiwan and Japanese waters.
They were accompanied for the first time by the destroyer Nanchang Type 065, a stealth vessel equipped with guided anti-aircraft missiles.
The Chinese Navy said the exercises were a routine effort to “increase our ability to protect national sovereignty,” and added that it was planning to conduct similar exercises.
The United States is concerned that the Chinese maritime militia will become even more threatening following a proposed revision of China’s coast guard law that could allow coast guard ships, which often accompany the militia, to d ‘use weapons.
Ketian Vivian Zhang, a researcher at George Mason University in the United States, said China’s exercises were a show of force and force around the self-governing island, intended to deter it from declaring independence.
She noted, however, that the increase in military activity did not match the tense period between 2012 and 2015 and was not particularly dangerous as long as the United States and China remained determined to avoid conflict.
Taipei on Wednesday warned it would shoot down Chinese drones that had surrounded the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in recent days if they crossed the island. In addition, the USS John S McCain, a guided missile destroyer, also conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the Taiwan Strait.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington