The Philippines said Wednesday that a group of over 200 Chinese vessels it spotted sailing near a disputed reef in the South China Sea have spread to a wider area. Manila claims the ships are carrying a “maritime militia,” while Beijing claims they are fishing vessels that were sheltering due to bad weather.
The Philippines’ task force on the South China Sea said in a statement that it expressed “deep concern over the continuing unlawful presence (swarming) of the Chinese maritime militia, which did not pull out.”
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his Philippine counterpart about the Chinese vessels on Tuesday. According to the White House, the two discussed the “Maritime Militia,” and Sullivan reaffirmed that the South China Sea is covered by the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, meaning a naval incident between Beijing and Mania could drag the US into war.
The ships were first spotted last week near Whitson Reef, which is located in the Spratly Islands and is about 175 nautical miles west of the Philippine province of Palawan. Whitson is claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
The Philippines responded by sending military aircraft to conduct surveillance flights over the boats. Manila said it observed 44 vessels that were still near Whitson and another 200 that were scattered throughout the Spratly Islands.
The US first responded to the situation on Monday. “The United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitson Reef,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter.
In one of his first phone calls as Secretary of State, Blinken spoke with his Philippine counterpart and said the Mutual Defense Treaty has a “clear application to armed attacks against the Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, which includes the South China Sea.”