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The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after spotting what it says are 220 ships manned by Chinese militia in its maritime territory, but a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry said the boats were fishing vessels sheltering from rough sea conditions.

The Philippine government on Sunday accused Beijing of military provocation through the presence of Chinese boats at Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe and is in the Spratly Islands, a chain in the South China Sea contested by China, the Philippines, and other countries.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had “fired off” a diplomatic protest to Beijing, while Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described the new development as a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”

“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS,” Lorenzana said on Sunday.

On Monday, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque confirmed that Manila had filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing over the boats in accordance with international law and “on behalf of the president.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the Philippine claims.

The ships at the reef in the Spratlys are fishing vessels, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, in response to a reporter’s question during a daily press briefing in Beijing.

“Niu’e Jiao is part of the Nansha Islands,” Hua said, referring to Whitsun Reef and the Spratly Islands by their Chinese names, as Beijing claims the territory in addition to almost all of the South China Sea.

“Chinese fishing boats have been fishing in the waters near the reef all along. Recently, due to [the] maritime situation, some fishing boats have been taking shelter from the wind near Niu’e Jiao, which is quite normal. We hope relevant sides can view this in an objective light.”

In a statement on Monday, the Chinese embassy in Manila also denied that the ships gathered at the reef were manned by maritime militia. They were fishing vessels sheltering from rough sea conditions, the embassy said.

“There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged. Any speculation … helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner,” the statement said.

Satellite images show groups of ships gathered at Whitsun Reef, March 20, 2021. [Image courtesy Planet Labs]

‘No actual fishing activities’

According to Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., the 220 Chinese ships were seen moored at the “large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef” on March 7 – and they were not fishing.

“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,” Esperon said on Saturday.

Photographs of the 220 ships indicated they were maritime militia vessels, which were not involved in fishing activities, said Andrew Erickson, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

“The photos from the Philippine Coast Guard and statement from Defense Secretary Lorenzana match verified information on China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM),” he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“The ships photographed look and act very much like the 84 large steel-hulled vessels purpose-built at multiple shipyards by 2016 for the leading Sansha City Maritime Militia, as documented by both the U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Naval Intelligence.”

Automatic identification system-data for the past few years had shown Sansha ships engaged in rotational forward deployments to China-claimed features and outposts throughout the South China Sea, he said.

“Crewed by well-salaried full-time personnel recruited in part from former PLA ranks, they appear not to bother fishing – the better to focus on trolling for territory,” Erickson said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

“Such vessels reportedly have weapons lockers, and official PRC [People’s Republic of China] photos depict exercises in which they are loaded with ‘light arms.’”

The presence of these vessels conforms to Beijing’s established South China Sea modus operandi, Erickson added.

“Two implications arise immediately: First, if not properly countered at Whitsun Reef, or elsewhere, PAFMM vessels could support further territorial seizure akin to what China achieved at Scarborough Shoal in 2012,” he said.

In 2012, the Chinese seized Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground within the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy.

“Second, if these [approximately] 220 vessels indeed belong to leading professionalized, militarized PAFMM units, they alone should significantly increase the U.S. government’s sole public estimate of total PAFMM ship numbers – which may be excessively conservative at [approximately] 84 vessels total, a number projected to remain fixed through 2030.”

Chinese vessels have been maintaining a consistent presence at the Whitsun Reef either with fishing boats or militia vessels, Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last month.

“We’ve caught sight of vessels congregating around Whitson multiple times over the last year or two,” Poling told BenarNews.

Poling expressed skepticism that the 220 Chinese vessels were fishing boats as claimed by the Chinese embassy in Manila.

“Chinese diplomats in [the] region continue to deny the existence of a maritime militia even though Chinese state media has broadcast their exploits for years,” Poling tweeted on Monday.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own despite an international arbitration court in 2016 ruling in favor of the Philippines in a case brought against Beijing over the contested waterway.

Six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China.

While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.