MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines vowed Thursday to “defend what is ours” as part of a stand-off over a Chinese warship circling a West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) reef which is occupied by Filipino Marines.
The Philippines this week protested the “provocative and illegal presence” of the warship near Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal, but China brushed off the complaint with an insistence that the area was part of its territory.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said 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 Agence France-Presse.
“Our Navy and our Coast Guard are mandated to enforce the laws of the (Philippine) republic.”
China claims nearly all of the West Philippine 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.
Ayungin Shoal is a tiny group of islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands chain, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest 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.
Ayungin Shoal is guarded by a handful of Philippine Marines aboard a World War II-era ship that was deliberately grounded there in the late 1990s to serve as a base.
It is about 41 kilometers (25 miles) east of Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), a Philippine-claimed outcrop that China occupied in 1995.
Ayungin Shoal and Panganiban Reef are within the Philippines’ internationally recognized 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 defense budget of $115 billion this year is nearly 100 times more than the Philippines.’
President Benigno Aquino III this week announced a planned $1.8-billion military upgrade to defend the country’s maritime territory against “bullies.”