The Philippines said on Saturday it had spotted a Chinese navy ship and dozens of militia vessels around a contested Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea, as territorial tensions mount in the area.
The Philippine Coast Guard said 42 vessels believed to be crewed by Chinese maritime militia personnel were seen in the vicinity of Thitu island, while a Chinese navy vessel and coast guard ship were observed “slowly loitering” in the surrounding waters.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the assertion.
Thitu in the Spratly island chain is Manila’s biggest and most strategically important outpost in the South China Sea, a body of water largely claimed by Beijing where several countries have conflicting territorial claims.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said two weeks ago the Philippines “will not lose an inch” of territory as the Southeast Asian protested China’s “aggressive activities” in the sea.
Locally known as Pag-asa, Thitu lies about 300 miles (480 km) west of the western Philippine province of Palawan. Home to over 400 people, including military and law enforcement personnel, the island is used by Manila to maintain its territorial claim.
Experts say China’s fishing fleet and coast guard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.
“Their continuing unauthorised presence is clearly inconsistent with the right of innocent passage and a blatant violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity,” the coast guard said in a statement.
Marcos last month summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the intensity and frequency of China’s actions in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has filed 77 complaints against China’s activities in the sea, including a claim that a Chinese coast guard ship on Feb. 6 directed a “military-grade laser” at one a Philippine coast guard ship on a supply mission.
China claims sovereignty over the Spratlys, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have competing claims for some or all of the islands.