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Philippines Wary of Chinese Fishing Boats Near Spratlys

Aerial view of Pagasa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines (File)
MANILA — The Philippines is expressing concern over 30 Chinese vessels that have settled near a reef among some disputed islands it partially claims in the South China Sea. The boats arrived from Hainan province Sunday, just days after a heated regional forum that ended with no consensus over how to address territorial disputes in the region.

Chinese news agencies say the fleet of fishing vessels near Yongshu Reef is accompanied by a 3,000-ton reinforcement ship and a government vessel for protection. China Daily says this is the largest fleet out of Hainan province to go on their annual fishing excursion.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs reacted immediately to the reports, issuing a statement on the arrival of the boats near the reef also known as Fiery Cross Reef.

“We just want to make sure that they don’t intrude into our exclusive economic zone and that they respect our sovereign rights over the resources within our EE Zed,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said, reiterating the department’s stance.

Fiery Cross Reef is about 500 kilometers west of Palawan province. That puts it well beyond the 370 kilometers from a country’s coastline that is considered under its authority by international law.

Analyst Carl Thayer specializes in security issues in the South China Sea at the University of New South Wales at the Australia Defense Force Academy. He calls the Philippines’ message to China “a massive response.”

“The more the Philippines stands up, the more China responds in clever ways," Thayer said. "The military is not involved. The PLA is always in the background, but it hasn’t been directly involved.”

Thayer points to the result of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ regional forum in Cambodia last week as an example where China gained the upper hand without having to involve its Peoples Liberation Army.

For the first time in its 45-year history the group of 10 ASEAN countries closed a meeting without a joint statement. According to the Philippine officials, a months-long standoff between the Philippines and China at a shoal claimed by the Philippines was discussed multiple times throughout the four-day forum. But Secretary Albert del Rosario says the ASEAN chairman from Cambodia, an ally of China, did not want to include the issue in a joint communiqué.

“ASEAN members who are not principally involved in this just want to hang back and not get involved or actually view the Philippines as being the cause of all this rather than China, if the Philippines would just stop doing it,” Thayer explained.

Apart from the Philippines, ASEAN member states Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have some claims in the South China Sea. China claims practically the entire sea, which has abundant fishing, busy sea lanes and potentially vast reserves of oil and gas.

Ten years ago, ASEAN and China signed a non-binding code of conduct promising to settle differences over the sea peacefully. But while several countries want to address disputes through multilateral talks, China prefers to deal with claimant countries one on one.

Thayer says with another six months before China’s major turnover in leadership, the country could continue to take advantage of what he calls the state of ASEAN’s “disarray.”