Philippine defense secretary in verbal conflict with China over coral reefs

Manila, Philippines (AFP) – The Philippine Defense Secretary on Saturday renewed his demand for dozens of Chinese ships to leave the reefs claiming Manila in the South China Sea, and said he would not be fooled by Chinese assurances that the ships were sheltering from bad weather.

The Chinese embassy responded to what it described as a “confusing statement” by Defense Minister Delphine Lorenzana and insisted that ships have the right to take shelter in what it said was Chinese territory. “Nobody has the right to make slanderous statements about such activities,” she said.

The unusually hostile public exchange arose from the Philippine Coast Guard’s sighting early last month of more than 200 Chinese ships, which Lorenzana called “militias” in Whitson Reef. The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest, saying the coral reefs, which Julian Philip calls, are located within an internationally recognized marine area, where they have the exclusive right to exploit fisheries, oil, gas and other resources.

China has ignored Manila’s demand for Chinese ships to leave the area, which it calls Niue Jiao and claims it is Chinese territory. The Chinese embassy in Manila said the ships were sheltering in the reefs from the rough sea conditions.

“The Chinese ambassador has a lot of clarity to do,” Lorenzana said in a statement on Saturday, adding that the latest Philippine military surveillance showed that 44 Chinese ships were still anchored in the coral reefs.

“I’m not a fool. The weather was fine so far so they have no other reason to stay there. These ships should be on their way out.” Lorenzana said on Saturday.

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The Chinese embassy responded again by repeating that the ships were hiding in what it called Chinese waters.

“It is completely normal for Chinese fishing boats to fish in the waters and take shelter near coral reefs during rough sea conditions,” the embassy said.

“We hope that the relevant authorities will make constructive efforts and avoid any unprofessional statements that may increase irrational feelings,” the embassy said. “China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the waters,” she added.

Whitsun Reef is located in Spratly, the most contested area in the South China Sea. The Philippines is a chain of resource-rich islands, islets and atolls that are part of the western province of Palawan. But China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim the maritime zone in whole or in part. China has turned seven disputed coral reefs into missile-protected island bases in recent years, raising tensions.

The United States expressed its support for the Philippines, its long-time ally in the treaty, and accused China of using “maritime militias to intimidate, provoke and threaten other countries, thus undermining peace and security in the region.” Beijing denied that the ships were part of a naval militia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has strengthened friendly relations with Beijing since taking office in 2016 and has been criticized for not promptly demanding China comply with an international arbitration award that nullified Beijing’s historic claims to almost the entire South China Sea. China has refused to acknowledge the 2016 resolution, which it called “a disgrace,” and is still defying it.

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