The Philippines vowed on Thursday to “defend what is ours” as part of a stand-off over a Chinese warship circling a South China Sea reef which is occupied by Filipino marines.
The Philippines this week protested the “provocative and illegal presence” of the warship near Second Thomas Shoal, but China brushed off the complaint with an insistence that the area was part of its territory.
Philippine foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez said on Thursday the warship, along with two patrol vessels and a fleet of Chinese fishing boats, remained near the shoal.
“They should not be there. They do not have the right to be there ... no-one should doubt the resolve of the Filipino people to defend what is ours in that area,” Hernandez said in a text message to AFP.
“Our navy and our coastguard are mandated to enforce the laws of the (Philippine) republic.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, and the area has for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conflict in the region.
Second Thomas Shoal is a tiny group of islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands chain, about 200 kilometres northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan, the nearest major landmass.
All claimants, except Brunei, have troops stationed on various islands and atolls in the Spratlys to assert their claims.
Second Thomas Shoal is guarded by a handful of Philippine marines aboard a second world war-era ship that was deliberately grounded there in the late 1990s to serve as a base.
It is about 41 kilometres east of Mischief Reef, a Philippine-claimed outcrop that China occupied in 1995.
Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef are within the Philippines’ internationally recognised exclusive economic zone, and surrounding waters are rich fishing grounds.
Last year China took control of Scarborough Shoal, another bountiful fishing area far closer to Filipino landmass than Chinese, after a similar stand-off ended with the Philippines retreating.
China’s announced defence budget of US$115 billion this year is nearly 100 times more than that of the Philippines.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino this week announced a planned US$1.8-billion military upgrade to defend the country’s maritime territory against “bullies”.