MANILA - The Chinese embassy in Manila on Saturday claimed that the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef), which Beijing calls Niu'e Jiao, is part of its string of islands in the disputed South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Saturday morning demanded that China withdraw its reported maritime militia from the Julian Felipe Reef, which lies within the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
But China again denied these were militia ships, claiming they were just Chinese vessels fishing in its waters.
"The Niu'e Jiao is part of China's Nansha Islands. The waters around Niu’e Jiao has been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years. The Chinese fishermen have been fishing in the waters for their livelihood every year," the embassy said in a statement.
"It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities.
"China is committed to safeguarding peace and stability in the waters and we hope that authorities concerned would make constructive efforts and avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions," it added.
Authorities earlier said the Philippine Coast Guard reported sighting close to 220 vessels in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7. They were believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel.
Lorenzana said, that as of Saturday, there were still 44 Chinese vessels in the reef.
"They have no other reason to stay there. These vessels should be on their way out. Umalis na kayo diyan (get out of there)," he said in a statement also posted on social media.
China earlier said the ships, which it claimed were fishing vessels, anchored near the reef due to a storm. But there were no weather disturbances in the area then, according to Philippine authorities.
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned that Filipinos should be "very wary" of what's happening at the Julian Felipe Reef as it may be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base, like China did on Mischief Reef in 1995.
"They started with saying they just built fishermen shelter on Mischief Reef. Now, Mischief Reef is their air and naval base, they call it their Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea. It’s a huge air and naval base," Carpio said.
China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea, which the West Philippine Sea is a part of, has been invalidated by an international arbitral tribunal in 2016.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims.
China's maritime assertiveness has put President Rodrigo Duterte in an awkward spot throughout his presidency because of his praise and controversial embrace of Beijing, with which the Philippines has a long history of mistrust.