TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – In the South China Sea, political tensions between the Philippines and China have escalated quickly with provocative behavior from the Chinese and a series of defensive exercises held by U.S., Philippines, and Australian forces.
Earlier this week it was reported that hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels, possibly as many as 300, had swarmed territory around several features of the Spratly Island chain. A spokesperson for the Duterte administration declared on Wednesday, April 10“They have no business being there,” and demanded the vessels leave the area.
"If they continue to be present in our territory then it is an assault to our sovereignty," said Presidential Spokesperson, Salvador Panelo.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lu Kang, responded to the Philippine's government by restating Beijing’s claim to the Spratlys and the entire South China Sea, reports the Inquirer.
"For thousands of years, Chinese fishermen have been fishing in these waters in the South China Sea. Their rights should not be challenged," said Kang.
The sudden appearance of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats in the disputed territory is another example of China utilizing its massive fishing fleet as an extension of its naval forces, deployed on command to send a message.
That message may have been sent in response to reports that the Philippines, along with the United States, and Australia held a military exercise nearby on Wednesday, simulating an island invasion scenario.
The exercise, part of the Balikatan Exercises, carried out on Lubang Island, northeast of the Spratlys, was designed as a “dress rehearsal” for the recapture of an island that has been seized by a “foreign power,” reports Task and Purpose.
In the Philippines, public dissatisfaction with Beijing's influence and Chinese incursions into Philippine territory have created difficulties for the Duterte administration in recent years, with Duterte seen as kowtowing to Chinese demands in the South China Sea.
However, with the current crisis around the Spratly Islands, Duterte is reportedly taking a tougher stance on China. In early April, Duterte stated his willingness to send military forces to confront the intruders, demanding China “lay off.” He even threatening suicide attacks against Chinese invaders.
For now, the Chinese flotilla of fishing boats, swarming the Thitu reef and other Spratly Islands, continues to defy President Duterte’s demands.