Philippines sends more ships to reef targeted by China

Tensions between the two nations have been rising since more than 200 Chinese vessels were seen moored at Whitsun Reef. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - The Philippines has deployed extra vessels to patrol the South China Sea where Chinese ships had been spotted at a disputed reef as tensions deepen between the two nations.

Four Philippine Navy ships were sent to back up Coast Guard and fishing vessels at Whitsun Reef, Reed Bank and the Spratly Islands, the South China Sea task force said in a statement Monday (April 12). "Sea assets are and shall be continuously deployed to different areas" for patrol, it said.

More than 200 Chinese "maritime militia" vessels are still "lingering" in the disputed waters, mostly at Gaven Reef, the task force said in a separate statement late Tuesday, citing findings from April 11 patrols.

At least six Chinese Navy vessels were also spotted, and Chinese poachers were also seen collecting giant clams, it said.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, in a Twitter post on Wednesday, directed his agency to file another diplomatic protest based on the task force's report.

On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs summoned China's Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian to express "displeasure over the illegal lingering presence" of Chinese vessels in Whitsun Reef, the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

Tensions between the Philippines and China have been rising since more than 200 Chinese vessels were seen moored at Whitsun Reef - within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone - on March 7, with the Southeast Asian nation later warning of a barrage of diplomatic protests if Beijing did not remove its ships.

The US also earlier aired concerns over China's "maritime militia" in the area.

Beijing had said the boats were sheltering from the wind and described the US characterisation of the fishing boats as "maritime militia" as ill-intentioned, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian telling a regular briefing in Beijing on April 9 the craft were normal and legitimate.

An armed Chinese Navy vessel was also reported last week to have chased down a civilian craft carrying a Filipino news crew in the area.

US defence and diplomatic officials have discussed recent South China Sea incidents with their Philippine counterparts, as the longtime allies resumed military drills and discussed faster coronavirus vaccine shipments.

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