There are fears a mass incursion of Beijing’s secretive ‘Maritime Militia’ into a South China Sea reef may lead to the construction of yet another artificial island fortress.
“China is gaslighting us,” Philippines senator Risa Hontiveros declared Wednesday. “China is making it appear as if we are hallucinating. We are tired of their attempts to twist the truth for the sake of advancing their self-interests. China has stolen from us, and now she is lying to us.”
Australia, the United States, and Japan have added their voice to international protests over the breach of Manila’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Some 220 “fishing boats” were counted inside Whitsun Reef on March 7, with 183 still there on March 19. Philippines authorities have reported little change since then.
The trawlers are parked within the arc of the strategically positioned reef. Their blue and white hulls are in pristine condition. They’re paraded in neat rows. They’ve been stationary for weeks. The weather has been great. And they’re not fishing.
“The sheer number of ships in the middle of the open sea has naturally raised urgent questions, as it was obvious that they were not there to fish,” says Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs director Dr. Jay Batongbacal.
Manila at the weekend issued a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing over their “intimidating” presence. But China’s embassy in Manila rejected any suggestion the boats were anything other than fishing vessels seeking shelter from storms. But suspicions remain high. Their presence follows a well-established pattern of behavior.
“The reclamation of reefs and conversion of artificial islands were always preceded by massive destructive fishing efforts as if to extract whatever valuables there were from the area before burying it with sand and paving it with concrete,” Dr. Batongbacal warns.
On Wednesday, outspoken Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr asserted that Whitsun Reef was “not an island; should not be made one by reclamation in legally ludicrous attempt to turn it into one generating an EZZ that swallows Palawan (a large island that forms part of mainland Philippines)”.