'Militia' stand-off: Structures in South China Sea spark alarm

China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea, escalating tensions in the Indo-Pacific region home to Australia.

The Chinese Communist Party has continually invaded sovereign waters and air space of neighbouring countries with its latest move antagonising government officials in the Philippines as tensions around a terse maritime stand-off grow.

Hundreds of Chinese vessels believed to be manned by militias in the South China Sea have spread to a wider area, the Philippines said on Wednesday (local time), defying its demand for the flotilla to be withdrawn immediately.

A satellite image shows Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the South China Sea.
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea. Source: AP

The Philippines has described the presence of the boats inside its 321-kilometre exclusive economic zone at Whitsun Reef as “swarming and threatening”.

On Thursday, the Philippine military said it had discovered illegally-built structures on features in the Union Banks, a series of reefs in the South China Sea in the same area, near where it accused Chinese vessels of increased activity in recent weeks.

"These structures are illegal," military chief-of-staff Lieutenant general Cirilito Sobejana said in a statement.

"The Laws of the Sea gives the Philippines indisputable and exclusive rights over the area. These constructions and other activities, economic or otherwise, are prejudicial to peace, good order, and security of our territorial waters."

Among the features in the Union Banks (which the Philippines calls the Pagkakaisa Banks) is Whitsun Reef which is part of the Spratly Islands archipelago, and is claimed by both the Philippines and China.

China denies vessels have militia on board

Earlier, the Philippines’ task force on the South China Sea expressed “deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence (swarming) of the Chinese maritime militia" in the area.

“Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China’s assertion of its so-called ‘indisputable integrated sovereignty’ over almost all of the South China Sea,” the task force said, urging an immediate withdrawal of the vessels.

Chinese diplomats claimed the boats were sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

Another satellite image of a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea.
The US said it was backing the Philippines in a new stand-off with Beijing in the disputed region. Source: AP

The Philippine position over Chinese boats is one of the strongest since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016 and sought to befriend Beijing, which has frustrated nationalists who say he has been soft on China, hurt ties with the United States and gambled with national sovereignty.

Citing intelligence gathered by its own patrols, the task force said 44 vessels were still at Whitsun Reef and about 200 others were spread out around other parts of the Spratly islands, including near China’s militarised man-made islands, where four of its navy boats were seen.

The Philippines has discussed the issue with the US, White House officials revealed, with the US backing the Philippines in the escalating dispute.

Meanwhile Canada, Australia, Japan and others have voiced concern about China’s intentions in the region.

Among Western allies, Australia in particular has held grave concerns about China's aggressive, expansionist and potentially destabilising actions in the region.

As the DFAT website states: "The Indo-Pacific is our home and the region that will have the greatest impact on Australia’s future prosperity and security. It encompasses our major trading, strategic and development partners."

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam have competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which more than A$4 trillion of annual trade passes.

with Reuters

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