On Tuesday, China said the Philippines should stop “hyping up” the presence of Chinese vessels near Whitson Reef, a disputed area in the South China Sea. Over the past week, Manila has claimed the ships are a “maritime militia,” while Beijing insists they are fishing vessels that were sheltering from bad weather.
“I don’t understand why some relevant party calls the Chinese fishermen maritime militia,” said Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman. “This saying reflects ulterior motives and hostile intentions.” Zhao also said Chinese people had been fishing in that area for “thousands of years.”
Also on Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called for a “peaceful” solution to the issue around Whitson Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines, a departure from the more hostile rhetoric that has been coming out of Manila. “We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means,” Duterte said in a statement.
The claims that a Chinese “maritime militia” has been swarming Whitson Reef caused the US to reaffirm that any incident in the region between China and the Philippines would draw the US into war. In a conversation with his Philippine counterpart last week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “reaffirmed the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in the South China Sea.”
On Sunday, the US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and two other warships entered the South China Sea, ratcheting up tensions in the region even more.