• The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the Chinese presence
  • Manila said Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities 
  • Beijing, which often uses fishing fleets to assert its territorial claims, is yet to respond 

The South China Sea is on the boil after the Philippines sounded an alarm about 200 Chinese vessels, allegedly manned by militia, spotted at a reef claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

The Chinese foreign ministry, however, said the vessels are "fishing boats" sheltering from poor weather.

“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement Sunday, reports The Guardian.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea had released pictures of the vessels lying side by side at Whitsun Reef, the disputed area which Manila calls Julian Felipe.

"Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and had their full white lights turned on during night-time," the task force said in a statement.

The presence of the boats was "a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to the safety of navigation," it added.

The Philippines has also filed a diplomatic protest over the Chinese presence in the region, saying the reef lies within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, over which it “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources." 

The Whitsun Reef or the Julian Felipe is a boomerang-shaped, shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324km) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan.

In 2015, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying China had no "legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea." However, Beijing had rejected the ruling. "China will never accept any claim or action based on those awards," Chinese premier Xi Jinping said while rejecting the ruling. 

Though China had often been called out for using fishing fleets to help assert its territorial claims, it had opted to ignore these reports. 

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who had often faced flak for not standing up to Chinese aggression, had also defended his non-confrontational approach. 

"When Xi says 'I will fish' who can prevent him?" he had earlier said. "If I send my marines to drive away from the Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you not one of them will come home alive." 

The dispute between China and the Philippines worsened recently after the latter alleged in February that a Chinese research vessel, Jia Geng, entered Philippine waters twice over the past year without authorization. 

The new law enacted by China that authorizes its Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels and structures in Chinese-claimed reefs had also irked Manila which called it a “virtual declaration of war.”

Disputed claims in the South China Sea Disputed claims in the South China Sea Photo: AFP / STAFF