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Standoff at Sea: Philippines Says Get Out, China Says Reef is Ours

It's the latest in a long history of encounters.
Apr 4, 2021
Satellite images taken on Mar. 23, 2021 show Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef, around 320 kilometers west of Bataraza in Palawan in the West Philippine Sea.
Photo/s: Maxar Technologies via Agence France-Presse

The Philippines and China are locked in a fresh standoff over a reef in disputed waters, after Chinese ships refused to leave despite being told by the Filipino defense chief to do so.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila said Niu’e Jiao, called Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippines, is part of Nansha Islands, which is how Beijing calls islands and outcrops in almost the entire South China Sea.

Manila claims Julian Felipe Reef as part the Kalayaan Islands, which largely overlap with what China calls Nansha. It also renamed the waters as West Philippine Sea. The island chain is known internationally as the Spratlys.

"The Chinese Ambassador to the PH has a lot of explaining to do. There are still 44 Chinese vessels that are in Julian Felipe Reef. I am no fool," Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.

It's the latest in a long history of standoffs at sea. In 2013, Filipino troops evaded a Chinese sea cordon to deliver supplies to a a navy ship off Ayungin Shoal. The year before, the Philippine Navy sent its only warship at that time to Scarborough Shoal after Chinese fishing vessels refused arrest by Filipino authorities.

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The Philippine foreign ministry earlier protested the presence of Chinese ships off Julian Felipe Reef, which numbered 220 at one point.

"The weather has been good so far, so they have no reason to stay there. These vessels should be on their way out. Umalis na kayo diyan," he said.

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The Chinese Embassy in Manila called Lorenzana's statement "perplexing" since the waters around the reef are "traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years."

"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," it said.

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"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 said.


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China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea, overlapping with claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia. Some $3.4 million worth of trade passes through the disputed waters annually and Washington has expressed concern over Beijing's actions in the region.

The Chinese government also refuses to recognize a UN court's ruling that favored the Philippines and invalidated its vast claims.

While the Philippines has filed numerous diplomatic protests over China's actions that endangered the lives of Filipino fishermen, Beijing has built artificial islands over the disputed reefs.

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