Philippines spots 220 Chinese military vessels at disputed reef in the South China Sea

Philippines has expressed concern after spotting hundreds of Chinese military vessels at a reef claimed by both countries in the South China Sea.

A government task force overseeing the disputed region said late on Saturday that about 220 vessels, believed to be crewed by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were seen moored at the Whitsun Reef on March 7.

The reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, is a boomerang-shaped and shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said the reef is well within Philippines’s exclusive economic zone and it “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources” there.

It added that the large numbers of Chinese boats spotted the Whitsun reef are “a concern due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation”.  However, it added that the vessels were not fishing when sighted.

Philippines is yet to lodge a protest against China’s invasion.

An international tribunal in 2016 invalidated China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, but Beijing does not recognise the ruling. China in recent years has built islands in the disputed waters, putting airstrips on some of them.

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei all claim parts of the sea. In January, the Philippines protested a new Chinese law allowing its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a “threat of war”.