A big fleet of Chinese fishing vessels arrived at the disputed Spratly Islands — known in Taiwan and China as the Nansha Islands (南沙群島) — in the South China Sea on Sunday, state media said, amid tensions with its neighbors over rival claims to the area.
The fleet of 30 fishing vessels arrived near the Yongshu Reef (永暑礁) in the afternoon after setting off on Thursday from the Chinese province of Hainan, Xinhua news agency reported.
Chinese fishing boats regularly travel to the Spratlys, a potentially oil-rich archipelago which China claims as part of its territory on historical grounds.
However, the fleet is the largest ever launched from the province, according to the report.
It includes a 3,000 tonne supply ship, and a patrol vessel has also traveled to the area to provide protection, the report said, adding that the vessels would spend the next five to 10 days fishing in the area.
The Philippines yesterday warned the fishing fleet to stay clear of its waters amid a continuing face-off between the two countries over disputed territory.
Philippine Foreign Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said the Philippine coast guard would check on the location of the Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, to ensure they do not enter the country’s 200 nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“If these [ships] are going to our EEZ, we will file a protest because this is our EEZ and it is only the Philippines [that has] the sovereign right to explore, exploit and manage the resources in that area,” he told reporters.
“We require China to respect the sovereign rights of the Philippines,” he added.
China says it has sovereign rights to all the South China Sea, believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits, including areas close to the coastlines of other countries and hundreds of kilometers from its own landmass.
The Spratlys are one of the biggest island chains in the area.
The rival claims have long made the South China Sea one of Asia’s potential military flashpoints, and tensions have escalated over the past year.
The Philippines and Vietnam have complained that China is becoming increasingly aggressive in its actions in the area — such as harassing fishermen — and also through bullying diplomatic tactics.
The Philippines said the latest example of this was at annual Southeast Asian talks in Cambodia that ended on Friday in failure because of the South China Sea issue.
The Philippines had wanted ASEAN to refer in a communique to a standoff last month with China over a rocky outcrop called the Scarborough Shoal, also known in Taiwan and China as Huangyan Island (黃岩島).
However, Cambodia, the summit’s host and China’s ally, blocked the move.
He cited reports that the fleet of 30 fishing vessels from Hainan had arrived at a point near the Yongshu Reef in the Spratlys, parts of which are claimed by the Taiwan, Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.