MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — The United States on Tuesday expressed concern over the presence of Chinese militia vessels in Philippine waters, noting that their appearance was meant to “intimidate and threaten” the country and undermine regional stability.
In a statement, the US Embassy in Manila said it notes the diplomatic protest filed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. as well as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s call to have China recall the 220 boats moored in the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef.
The reef is within the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety, conducting militarization and island-building activities.
“The [People’s Republic of China] uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region… We share the concerns of our Philippine allies,” the US Embassy said.
"We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia," it said.
Julian Felipe Reef is a large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
It is within the Philippine EEZ and continental shelf, over which the country owns exclusive right to use resources, including fish, oil and natural gas.
Authorities earlier said that the Philippine Coast Guard had reported the presence of the vessels, which bore the Chinese flag. They were first reported moored at the reef on March 7.
But the Chinese Embassy in Manila, in a statement, denied allegations the vessels are part of Beijing's militia, describing them as fishing vessels taking shelter due to “rough sea conditions.” It also insisted that the reef is part of their territory.
The US, however, pointed out that the boats have been gathering in the area no matter the weather.
“Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather,” it said.
'US NOT A PARTY TO CHINA SEA ISSUE'
The US, while no party in the South China Sea dispute, has been pushing for freedom of navigation in the vital trading route. It has held patrols and drills in the area.
But in a tweet, the Chinese Embassy in Manila blasted the US for alleged meddling, accusing it of "provoking confrontation."
"Fanning flames and provoking confrontation in the region will only serve the selfish interests of individual country and undermine the regional peace and stability," according to the Chinese Embassy's tweet that tagged the US Embassy in Manila.
It also said that Beijing and Manila, both "sovereign and independent countries," have a way of resolving the circumstance.
"We have the will, wisdom and ability to properly handle relevant issues through bilateral channels."
Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Kazuhiko Koshikawa meanwhile stressed that the South China Sea issues are "directly related to peace and stability and a concern for all."
"Japan strongly opposes any action that heightens tensions. We support the enforcement of #RuleOfLaw in the sea & work with the international community to protect the free, open, and peaceful seas," he said in a tweet.
Malacañang on Monday said it believes that the development could be talked out with China, which it considered as a "friend".
On orders of the Philippines armed forces chief, an aircraft was dispatched on the same day to the area to determine the latest situation, said military spokesman Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo.
In January, the Philippines protested a new Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, describing it as a "threat of war".
- With a report from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News