Tensions flare up as Philippines spots Chinese vessels at Whitsun reef 

Manila Edited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: Mar 22, 2021, 10:56 PM IST

Vessels in South China Sea (representative image). Photograph:(Reuters)

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The Philippines has spotted more than 200 Chinese vessels at a reef that it calls its own. They say the boats do not appear to be fishing and that they are manned by China's maritime militia

Tensions are flaring up once again in the South China Sea. Hundreds of fishing vessels have been spotted at a disputed reef. The Philippines says these are Chinese vessels manned by militias. Manila has shot off a warning. It has termed the presence of Chinese vessels an incursion.   

The Philippines has demanded withdrawal from China. So, has China opened up another front in the tense South China Sea? Is Beijing militarising a disputed region? 

The South China Sea is one of the most hotly contested regions in the world. China stakes claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Vietnam, The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, they all have competing, sometimes overlapping claims. Any flare up could lead to a serious military conflict.  

The Philippines has spotted more than 200 Chinese vessels at a reef that it calls its own. They say the boats do not appear to be fishing and that they are manned by China's maritime militia. 

The Philippines says these vessels are violating its maritime rights in the Whitsun reef, which looks like a boomerang. The Philippines calls it the Julian Felipe.   

Manila says this reef lies within the country's exclusive economic zone. Manila has released some photographs of those ships. They are positioned side by side. The Philippines is concerned by the sheer number of ships.  

They say, these ships could engage in possible overfishing, destruction of the marine environment as well as pose risks to safety of navigation but a national task force in Philippines says the Chinese vessels aren't really fishing and the ships keep their lights on during night time.  

The defence secretary of Philippines has shot off a statement. It says the presence of Chinese ships is a matter of grave concern. He called it 'a clear provocative action of militarising the area'.  

What is Beijing's response? China's ministry of foreign affairs said that the presence of these ships is 'very normal'. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said, "What I want to tell you is that Whitsun Reef is a part of the Spratly islands, and China's fishing vessels have always been fishing in the waters of Whitsun reef for a very long time. Recently, because of the maritime situation, China's fishing vessels have been staying near Whitsun reef to shelter themselves from strong winds. This is very normal, and we hope all parties can view this reasonably." 

For the Philippines, all this is far from normal. Back in 2016, Philippines had won a case against China's territorial claims.  

Five years ago, an international court had dismissed Beijing's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea but China refused to recognise this decision. It continues to push its claims on the South China Sea. It is believed that Beijing uses fishing fleets across the region to assert its claims. 

A report from 2019 says, "A significant number of fishing vessels in the area forgo fishing full time to serve as a direct arm of the state through maritime militia". The bigger challenge is how China is transforming some of the islands. Reportedly, China has turned several reefs in the Spratly islands chain into man-made islands, where missiles, runways and weapons systems have been deployed. 

The Spratly islands are a group of more than 100 small islands or reefs. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds. China claims the entire Spratly islands while the rest of the parties have competing claims.