Philippines files new diplomatic protests over Chinese boats in disputed waters

The Philippines in March described the presence of over 200 boats. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (REUTERS) - The Philippines filed fresh diplomatic protests against China on Wednesday (April 14) after accusing its giant neighbour of undertaking illegal fishing and massing more than 240 boats within the South-east Asian country's territorial waters.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said that two protests have been lodged, days after Manila summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to press for the withdrawal of China's vessels on the disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea and other Philippine maritime zones.

The Philippines last month described the presence of over 200 boats believed to be manned by militias inside its 322km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as "swarming and threatening", while the United States, Japan and others have voiced concern about China's intentions, prompting rebukes by Beijing.

In a Twitter post, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said: "they really are fishing everything in the water that belongs by law to us".

A Philippine government taskforce said the vessels, which are about 60m in length, can catch a tonne of fish a day. It said 240 were in various areas in Philippine waters as of Sunday, including nine at Whitsun Reef.

"The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea, and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the EEZ," the task force said in a statement late on Monday.

China's embassy in Manila and the foreign ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Chinese diplomats have previously said the Whitsun reef was part of its traditional fishing grounds, and that vessels were taking shelter from rough seas and did not have militia aboard.

Since coming to power in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has criticised US foreign policy and sought to improve ties with Beijing, but China's maritime assertiveness has put him in a difficult spot at times.

The Philippine navy planned to deploy three more ships in the South China Sea.

"We have to understand that to say that one area is ours, we have to be there," army spokesman Major General Edgard Arevalo said.

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