MANILA - The Philippine military expressed deep concern on Friday over a "disturbing" surge in the presence of Chinese fishing boats in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, posing a threat to the security of the resource-rich Reed Bank.
According to the Western Command (WESCOM) of the military, the number of Chinese fishing vessels swarming around Iroquois reef, located just south of the Reed Bank, has skyrocketed from a mere dozen in February to a staggering 47 as of last month.
Ariel Coloma, spokesperson for the Western Command, emphasized, "China must put an end to the swarm of vessels and show respect for our sovereign rights," highlighting the urgency of the situation.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately comment on the matter.
In a significant arbitration case in 2016, the Philippines achieved a landmark victory that invalidated China's expansive claims in the South China Sea, a crucial waterway through which approximately $3 trillion worth of seaborne goods are transported each year.
This ruling, supported by the United States, a treaty ally, but rejected by China, shed light on the Philippines' sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending 200 miles from its shores. These rights include access to offshore oil and gas fields, including the Reed Bank, where a natural gas exploration project led by Philippine firm PXP Energy Corp has been stalled.
Furthermore, Philippine military flights have documented the regular presence of three China Coast Guard ships and two Chinese navy vessels lingering around Sabina Shoal, another location within the Philippine EEZ, much like Iroquois.
"These developments raise serious concerns regarding China's intentions and actions within these disputed waters," cautioned WESCOM.
According to a summary of the call, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin assured his Philippine counterpart, Gilbert Teodoro, on Thursday that the United States remains unwavering in its commitment to defending its ally, particularly in the South China Sea.
On Wednesday, the Philippines lodged accusations against the China Coast Guard, citing instances of harassment, obstruction, and dangerous maneuvers directed at Philippine vessels near a strategically important feature in the South China Sea.