South China Sea: Beijing accuses Philippines of ‘hype’ over Chinese fleet at Whitsun Reef

Catherine Wong
·3 min read

China has asked Manila to “stop hyping up” the fleet of Chinese vessels moored around Whitsun Reef in the disputed South China Sea.

The Philippines has been protesting against the continued presence of Chinese vessels, initially numbering in the hundreds but dropping to dozens in recent days, inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone at the reef in the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in China.

The Philippines says the ships are maritime militia but China insists they are civilian fishing boats “sheltering from wind” in their own traditional fishing ground.

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On Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Manila “harboured ulterior motives and hostile intentions” when calling the Chinese ships maritime militia, and reiterated that Chinese fishermen had enjoyed the right to fish and seek shelter in the area “for thousands of years”.

“I don’t understand why some relevant party calls the Chinese fishermen maritime militia … This saying reflects ulterior motives and hostile intentions.”

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Monday that Manila would protest daily until China withdrew all its vessels. It also cited Manila’s 2016 victory at an international tribunal which rejected China’s claim of “historic rights” over much of the South China Sea.

Philippines says Whitsun Reef dispute shows China intends to occupy more ‘features’

On Tuesday, Zhao said: “The South China Sea arbitral ruling is illegal and ineffective. The Chinese side does not accept or recognise the ruling, and oppose … the Philippine side using the illegal ruling to deny the thousand years of fishing rights of the Chinese fishermen in the area.

“We urge the Philippine side to objectively and rationally view the matter, stop hyping up and stop bringing negative influence to the South China Sea situation.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stayed quiet and is leaving the tough talk to his defence and foreign ministers. On Sunday, defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana said “the continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy features in the West Philippine Sea”.

The Philippines toned down the criticism on Tuesday and warned that current tension risked triggering “unwanted hostilities”.

“We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe [Reef] through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means,” said a statement from Duterte read by his spokesman, Harry Roque.

Duterte’s top legal counsel Salvador Panelo warned that China’s “present territorial incursions is producing an unwelcome stain in their bond and may trigger unwanted hostilities that both countries would rather not pursue”.

Will the Whitsun Reef dispute come between Beijing and Manila?

The Philippine leader has previously vowed to set aside the maritime disputes in exchange for economic support from China. The country continues to seek Beijing’s support to contain one of Asia’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks and secure vaccine supplies. Last week, the Philippines saw the arrival of 1 million vaccines produced by Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac.

Amid the growing tensions in the South China Sea, the United States Navy confirmed on Tuesday that it had sent the Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group to the South China Sea on Sunday, the second time it had entered the waters this year.

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