The Philippines has raised the alarm, alleging that China had deployed more than 200 vessels in a disputed reef in the West Philippines sea, reports said on Monday.
In an unusual announcement published by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, PCOO, the National Task Force on the West Philippines Sea said Chinese ships have “massed” at the Julian Felipe Reef, the official Philippines name for Whitsun Reef.
Manila Times reported that the Julian Felipe Reef is a large boomerang-shaped shallow coral reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, and northeast of Pagkakaisa banks and reefs or the Union Reefs.
The reef is claimed by both China and the Philippines.
The Philippines Coast Guard, PCG, through the task force and PCOO, shared photos dated March 7, showing the ships lined up at the reef.
Commodore Armand Balilo, the PCG spokesman, acknowledged the sighting of the ships but declined to provide additional details to the PCOO.
“In spite 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,” the task force said in a statement.
It said it considered the presence of vessels as a “concern” because of the possibility of overfishing and destruction of the marine environment in the area.
The task force also raised “risks to the safety of navigation.”
In February, the Philippines threatened to order its navy to shoot back at any possible Chinese aggression after China passed a coast guard law allowing it to shoot at vessels in territories claimed by China.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months.
This is seen partly in response to Beijing’s concerns over the increasing U.S. military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-U.S. tensions.
Beijing’s rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South Sea has resulted in unprecedented agreements across the Indo-Pacific region.