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BEIJING (AP) — Bad weather prompted more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels to anchor at a reef claimed by the Philippines, Beijing said on Monday, sidestepping accusations from Manila of a move by China's vast South China Sea maritime militia to assert control in the area.
However, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointedly told reporters at a briefing Monday that Whitsun Reef was part of the Spratly Islands, one of the main archipelagoes in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety.
“Recently, due to the sea conditions, some Chinese fishing boats have taken shelter from the wind near the Whitsun Reef. I think it is very normal and hope all parties can look at it rationally," Hua said at the daily briefing.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called on Sunday for China to “stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory.”
The presence of the vessels was a “provocative action of militarizing the area,” Lorenzana said.
A Philippine government watchdog overseeing the disputed region released pictures from March 7 of the vessels moored side by side in one of the most hotly contested areas of the strategic waterway. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted late Sunday that the Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the Chinese presence.
The reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, is a shallow, boomerang-shaped coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. It lies well within the country’s exclusive economic zone, over which the Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources,” the government watchdog said.
For decades China, the Philippines and four other governments have been locked in a tense territorial standoff over the resource-rich South China Sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion in international trade travels annually.
China’s fishing fleets have long followed government orders to assist the coast guard and navy in asserting the country’s maritime claims. They have also been accused of massive overfishing and degrading coral reefs, backed up by a Chinese military that has built airfields and missile bases on manmade islands constructed by piling sand and concrete atop fragile marine ecosystems.
China has refused to recognize a 2016 ruling from a tribunal in The Hague that invalidated almost all of China's historical claims to the South China Sea, and routinely protests the presence of other countries' navies in what are overwhelmingly viewed as international waters. China says it doesn't restrict right of passage through the area, but has repeatedly sparred with other claimants over resource exploitation, military activities and even projects to explore ancient sea wrecks.