MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ defence chief said on Sunday China was looking to occupy more areas in the South China Sea, citing the continued presence of Chinese vessels that Manila believes are manned by militias in disputed parts of the strategic waterway.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas) in the West Philippine Sea,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement, using the local name for the South China Sea.
It was the second hostile statement by Lorenzana in two days as he repeated calls by the Philippines for the Chinese boats to leave Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, located within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Chinese diplomats have said the boats anchored near the reef - numbering more than 200 based on initial intelligence gathered by Philippine patrols - were sheltering from rough seas and that no militia were aboard.
On Saturday, Lorenzana said there were still 44 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef despite improved weather conditions.
“I am no fool. The weather has been good so far, so they have no reason to stay there,” he said.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila responded to Lorenzana’s comments, saying it was “completely normal” for Chinese vessels to fish in the area and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. It added, “Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities.”
An international tribunal invalidated China’s claim to 90% of the South China Sea in 2016, but Beijing does not recognise the ruling and has built artificial islands in the disputed waters equipped with radar, missiles batteries and hangars for fighter jets.
“They have done this (occupy disputed areas) before at Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and at Panganiban Reef, brazenly violating Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights under international law,” Lorenzana said in his Sunday statement.
Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell
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