Asia Philippines accuses 'swarm' of 135 Chinese ships of invading reef it claims

The Philippine Army was put on alert this Sunday after reporting the appearance of more than 135 ships of the Chinese Maritime Militia that have begun to “swarm” around the Whitsun Reef, in the Spratly Islands, disputed by both countries.

According to the Philippine Coast Guard, the Chinese ships are “dispersed” around Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe Reef, about 320 km west of the island of Palawan. This boomerang-shaped reef is located more than 1,000 km from China’s first major landmass, Hainan Island.

Philippine authorities, who had already sighted 111 vessels in the area on November 13, counted “more than 135” when they deployed two patrol boats on Saturday, they said. “There was no response to the radio calls made by the Philippine coast guard” to the Chinese vessels, they added. Images released by the coast guard show ships lined up in formation, while others are scattered in the waters. The Chinese embassy in Manila, contacted by AFP, did not immediately respond.

In 2021, some 210 Chinese vessels were parked near Whitsun Reef for several weeks, according to the Philippine government. Beijing claimed that these were fishing boats taking shelter from bad weather, but Manila rejected this explanation, claiming that there had been no storms during the period in question. Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea, including the waters and islands surrounding it, and has ignored a 2016 international court ruling that this claim has no legal basis.

China regularly deploys ships to patrol disputed waters and has built militarized artificial islands to reinforce its position. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim several reefs and islets in the sea, which are believed to harbor rich oil reserves.

The Philippines announced this Friday the creation of a coast guard station on the largest island it controls in the South China Sea, in order to reinforce surveillance of Chinese ships. The station will be equipped with “advanced systems” such as radars, satellite communications, coastal cameras and maritime traffic management systems, National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano said during a visit to Thitu Island. Construction work has already been completed, and the station should be operational early next year.