Philippines asks China to recall its 220 boat fleet floating off disputed reef in South China Sea

The Philippines have asked China to recall more than 200 boats that were spotted at a disputed reef claimed by both Manila and Beijing, describing their presence as a “clear provocative action.”

Philippine government officials on Saturday said 220 Chinese vessels moored at the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, close to the western Philippine province of Palawan in the South China Sea on March 7.

“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 Sunday, according to state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).

The reef, which is part of the Spratly Islands archipelago, is claimed by both governments. The Philippines maintains that it falls inside the country’s exclusive economic zone. A 2016 ruling by a United Nations tribunal dismissed China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, though Beijing has refused to recognize the decision.

Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had lodged a protest with the Chinese government over the presence of the Chinese vessels, tweeting late Sunday, “Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Monday the fishing boats were engaged in routine operations in what China calls the Nansha Islands.

“For a long period of time, Chinese fishing boats have been fishing in adjacent waters. Some ships have been sheltering from the wind. It is very normal. We hope relevant sides could look at this rationally,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said.