Philippines says boosting maritime presence to protect territory, resources

April 22, 2021 - 10:17 AM
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Philippine Coast Guard personnel are seen onboard a rubber boat as they sail near Chinese vessels believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, in a handout photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard April 15 and taken according to the source either on April 13 or 14, 2021. (Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters)

MANILA — The Philippines is beefing up its presence in the South China Sea and deploying more ships and aircraft to protect its maritime territory and resources, a government task force said on Wednesday.

The Philippines has ramped up its rhetoric in recent weeks in defiance of what it says is threatening behavior by Chinese vessels in its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), despite four years of rapprochement with historic rival China.

“We are exhausting all means possible to protect our territory and EEZ,” the Philippines‘ South China Sea task force said in a statement.

The deployment is the latest move in an ongoing feud with China over what Manila called “swarming” by hundreds of fishing vessels it said were manned by Chinese state-backed militias. China has denied militias were aboard.

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered authorities to continue “sovereignty patrols”, and intensify operations against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in its territorial waters, the task force said.

Nine vessels from the coastguard and the fisheries bureau, a coastguard aircraft and police watercraft and rubber boats were being deployed in the South China Sea, including in waters off Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys, the task force said.

U.S.-ally the Philippines has filed several diplomatic protests over Chinese activities in the South China Sea, with the latest accusing its giant neighbor of illegal fishing and massing more than 240 boats within its EEZ.

The challenge puts the spotlight on Duterte’s controversial pursuit of better relations and economic ties with China.

The firebrand leader said on Monday he was prepared to deploy navy ships to assert the Philippines‘ sovereign rights to oil and mineral resources in its EEZ, telling China that if it started drilling for oil, so will he.

China claims almost the South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

—Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty