Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to protect the country’s maritime territory during a meeting with China’s ambassador, his spokesman said on Thursday (March 25), as international concern grows about Chinese vessels massing in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over the “swarming and threatening presence” of more than 200 vessels that it believes were manned by maritime militia, which was moored at the Whitsun Reef within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
“The president said we are really concerned. Any country will be concerned with that number of ships,” Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, told a regular news conference when asked about the meeting.
The United States, Japan and Canada have also expressed alarm about the Chinese boats.
Roque said Duterte reaffirmed to China’s ambassador, Huang Xilian, that the Philippines had won a landmark arbitration case in 2016, which made clear its sovereign entitlements amid competing claims by China.
That ruling also invalidated China’s nine-dashed line claim to 90% of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which at least $3.4 trillion of annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
The embassy on Wednesday said the vessels at Whitsun Reef were fishing boats taking refuge from rough seas. A Philippine military spokesman said China’s defense attache had denied there was militia aboard.
China’s maritime assertiveness has put Duterte in an awkward spot throughout his presidency because of his praise and controversial embrace of Beijing, with which the Philippines has a long history of mistrust.
Duterte has been sharply criticized at home for his reluctance to speak out against China and instead blame close ally the United States for creating conflict in the South China Sea.