The European Union has criticised China’s activities in the South China Sea, accusing it of threatening regional peace and stability. On Saturday the bloc issued a statement saying it strongly opposed “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order”. “Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region,” it said, referring to the presence of a large number of ships at a reef claimed by the Philippines . The EU also referred to a 2016 ruling by an international arbitration tribunal that declared China’s claim that it had “historical rights” to the South China as invalid. Beijing refused to take part in the lawsuit or accept the decision. Meanwhile, the Philippines repeated its protests over the presence of Chinese boats in its exclusive economic zone. The Philippine foreign ministry said their maritime officials had observed the “continued unauthorised presence and activities” of Chinese fishing and militia vessels around the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. In response to the EU statement, the Chinese embassy in Brussels said the Chinese boats were there for “fishing operations” and “sheltering from wind”, adding that “the instability and security risks in the South China Sea mainly come from forces outside the region”. South China Sea: Chinese boats keep up steady presence at disputed Whitsun Reef, says US ship tracker “China urges the European side to respect the efforts of regional countries to settle their differences and maintain the stability in the South China Sea, and stop instigation and sowing discord,” it said. The EU unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy last week , in which it emphasised its interest in free, open and secure maritime supply routes – including the South China Sea where up to a third of the world trade passes through. EU member states, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands are all considering sending warships to patrol in the waters, following the United States navy’s regular “freedom of navigation” operation in the region. China claims most of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei also have complex overlapping claims to the resource-rich waters and islands and reefs in it. Beijing has strongly criticised interventions by other countries over the issue and is currently in talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Beijing’s South China Sea military bases ‘are vulnerable to attack and will be of little use in a war’ The EU said it supported the process and urged the parties to pursue its finalisation. The relationship between the EU and China has come under strain recently, after Brussels sanctioned officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, prompting retaliatory measures from Beijing.