The Philippines sends fighter jets over Chinese ships in the South China Sea

Some of the approximately 220 Chinese ships reported by the Philippine Coast Guard, believed to be manned by Chinese marine militia personnel, were photographed at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, March 7, 2021. Philippine Coast Guard / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea / Flyer Via Reuters

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippine Defense Secretary said that the Philippine military is sending light combat aircraft to fly over hundreds of Chinese ships in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, while reiterating its demand for the fleet to be withdrawn immediately.

International concern is growing over what the Philippines described as a “mobilization and threat of presence” of more than 200 Chinese ships that Manila believes were manned by maritime militias.

Boats docked at Whitsun Reef within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Defense Secretary Delphine Lorenzana said in a statement late on Saturday that Philippine military aircraft were dispatched daily to monitor the situation.

Lorenzana said the military would also beef up its naval presence in the South China Sea to conduct “sovereignty patrols” and protect Filipino fishermen.

“Our air and sea assets are ready to protect our sovereignty and our sovereign rights,” Lorenzana said.

The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She said the ships at Whitsun Reef were fishing boats that took refuge from rough seas and there was no militia on board.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reaffirmed to Chinese Ambassador Huang Chilian that the Philippines won a landmark arbitration case in 2016, which outlined its sovereign entitlements amid competing claims from China, his spokesman said last week.

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Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which at least $ 3.4 trillion in annual trade passes.

Report from Karen Lima. Edited by Stephen Coates

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