The Philippines said on Sunday that more than 135 Chinese vessels were “populating” a reef off its coast, calling the boats’ growing presence “alarming.”
The Chinese boats were “scattered and scattered” within the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe Reef, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of the island of Palawan, the coast guard said.
Whitsun Reef is more than 1,000 kilometers from the nearest major Chinese landmass, Hainan Island.
The Philippines said it counted 111 Chinese Maritime Militia Vessels (CMM) as of November 13. When the Coast Guard deployed two patrol boats to the area on Saturday, the number had risen to “more than 135,” the force said.
“There was no response to the radio calls from the PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) to the CMM vessels, whose number has now grown to more than 135 vessels scattered and dispersed in the Julian Felipe Reef,” the Manila Coast Guard described the presence of boats was deemed “alarming” and “illegal.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, including waters and islands near its neighbors’ coasts, and has ignored an international court’s ruling that its claim has no legal basis.
It uses ships to patrol the waters and has built artificial islands and military installations to strengthen its position.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have also laid claims to various islands and reefs in the sea, which is believed to have rich petroleum reserves deep beneath its waters.
The coast guard released images on Sunday showing Chinese ships lined up in formation while others were scattered across the water.
In 2021, a similar incident involving more than 200 Chinese ships on the reef sparked a diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing.
At the time, Manila insisted that their incursions into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone were unlawful.
But China insisted they were fishing boats sheltering from bad weather and were allowed to be there.
The Philippines said on Friday it would set up a coast guard on its largest island in the South China Sea to improve surveillance of Chinese ships.
The coast guard will be equipped with “advanced systems” including radar, satellite communications, coastal cameras and vessel traffic management, national security adviser Eduardo Ano said during a visit to Thitu island.
The station has been built and is expected to be operational early next year.
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