China will conduct a military exercise in the South China Sea next Monday and Tuesday as tensions remain high over the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, prompting Manila to send daily air patrols over the Julian Felipe Reef.
On Friday, the China Maritime Safety Administration issued a notice saying an area between China's southernmost Hainan province and the Paracel Islands would be closed to marine traffic due to military training, the South China Morning Post reported.
The previous day the Philippine military sent more warships to carry out “sovereignty patrols” in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels have surrounded the disputed Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef and refused to leave.
The Chinese government said the ships were fishing vessels taking shelter, while the Philippines says the ships are manned by maritime militia.
Friday’s announcement came on the same day that China sent 20 war planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the largest incursion reported by the island’s defense ministry.
A US official told Financial Times that Washington is concerned that China is flirting with the idea of seizing control of Taiwan.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said an Air Force jet was conducting daily patrols over Chinese vessels parked near the Julian Felipe Reef as Beijing refused to pull the ships out of the area.
About 220 boats were first spotted earlier this month at the boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef around 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island, sparking a diplomatic row.
Manila has ordered Beijing to recall the vessels, describing their presence as an incursion into its sovereign territory.
But China, which claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, says the flotilla is made up of fishing vessels sheltering from bad weather.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed a diplomatic protest, and several countries, including the United States and Australia, have expressed concern over the renewed tension in the region.
Philippine navy and coast guard ships have been deployed to the area to monitor the situation, in addition to the aerial patrols, Lorenzana said late Saturday.
"We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines," Lorenzana said, repeating a call for the Chinese ships to withdraw.
He added there will be an "increased presence" of navy and coast guard ships patrolling Philippine waters.
The resource-rich South China Sea is contested by several countries, including the Philippines and China.
Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights over most of it, and has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared this assertion as without basis.
President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed concern over the presence of the vessels to the Chinese ambassador in Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Thursday.
Duterte has fostered warmer ties with Beijing since taking office in 2016 in exchange for greater economic cooperation with its superpower neighbor.
But the shift has failed to stem Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, or unlock much of the billions of dollars of promised trade and loans.
In the House of Representatives, the leftist Makabayan bloc said it wants an investigation into the presence of the Chinese ships.
Lawmakers belonging to the bloc filed House Resolution 1675 seeking to condemn and probe the presence of hundreds of Chinese militia vessels around the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
They said the Duterte administration has failed to protect the country's territorial integrity that resulted in the loss of livelihood of Filipino fishermen.
"With the continuing harassment by the China Coast Guard and the Chinese deployment of maritime militias, Filipinos were deprived of the natural resources in its own territory," the Makabayan bloc said.
The deployment of the Chinese vessels could "lead to another level of disrespect to Philippine sovereignty." With AFP