Aides of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticized China on April 5 for anchoring hundreds of its vessels for a month in the disputed South China Sea areas, which could lead to “unwanted hostilities,” his legal counsel warned.
Duterte is usually reluctant to confront China. He even angered Filipinos by refusing to press China on respecting a landmark 2016 arbitral ruling that clarified the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which can help the country take back the control of the Scarborough Shoal.
On Monday, Duterte’s lawyer Salvador Panelo called the prolonged presence of Chinese boats “territorial incursions” and told the Beijing regime: “We can negotiate on matters of mutual concern and benefit, but make no mistake about it—our sovereignty is non-negotiable.”
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque echoed the view later on that day and told a news conference: “We will not give up even a single inch of our national territory or our EEZ.”
The situation of the South China Sea is intense with over 250 Chinese fishing boats, which are believed to host militias posing as sailors, anchored around six areas, and warships from China, the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan sailing nearby.
The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was observed to have entered the South China Sea together with Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Russell and Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill on April 4, according to the Chinese think tank South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI).
The Australian Anzac-class frigate HMAS Anzac, the Canadian Halifax-class frigate HMCS Calgary, and Japanese destroyer Akebono were also spotted sailing in the disputed ocean, SCSPI reported on April 1.
The Filipino government said on Wednesday that about 250 Chinese fishing boats, together with at least four navy ships, are anchored side by side in six disputed areas in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea.
The vessels have been seen in the islands since March 7. They first anchored side by side on Whitsun Reef. Over 200 of them moved to other areas after the Filipino government condemned them in late March.
On April 4, Philippines’ Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in his statement that 44 Chinese fishing boats are still anchored on Whitsun Reef.
The existence of the Chinese vessels angered the Philippines. The Manila government criticized the Beijing regime in the past weeks.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy in the West Philippine Sea (The Philippines’ name for the South China Sea),” Lorenzana said in Sunday’s statement.
“They have done this [occupy disputed areas] before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and at Panganiban Reef, brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law,” Lorenzana added.
The Chinese embassy in Manila claimed on March 22 that the boats were sheltering from rough seas, and Chinese fishermen have been fishing at Whitsun Reef for many years.
On April 5, the Philippines’ Foreign Ministry rejected that Whitsun Reef is a traditional Chinese fishing ground, saying the Chinese boats “blatantly infringe” on Philippine jurisdiction. The ministry said it will send a diplomatic protest each day that Chinese boats stay there.
On April 4, Lorenzana asked the vessels to leave by emphasizing “the weather has been good so far, so they have no reason to stay there.”
China has shown its aggressiveness in the South China Sea in recent years.
Jin Canrong, a professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, said China is eager to occupy the whole of the South China Sea in his 2016 speech, and the methods include sending fishing boats to surround the islands and reefs.
“Beijing pretty clearly thinks that if it uses enough coercion and pressure over a long enough period of time, it will squeeze the Southeast Asians out,” Greg Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told New York Times on April 3.
Studying and analyzing the South China Sea is a hot topic on the Chinese internet.
On April 2, SCSPI published a long article to review the history of Vietnam occupying 29 islands and reefs in the South China Sea by constructing airports, hospitals, and other facilities, deploying military troops, equipping fishing boats with heavy machine guns, and training militias in the past 45 years.
The article urged the international community to focus on Vietnam’s actions in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea has at least 50 islands and reefs, which were controlled by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei also claims for islands although it doesn’t control any of them so far.
In April 2018, Jin said in a speech that China was progressing its target by keeping on building more constructions, as well as manufacturing more advanced warships that can guard these areas.
Reuters contributed to this report.