The Philippines said that Beijing’s fishing flotilla is “illegally”operating near a disputed reef © The Philippine Coast Guard

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has dispatched two armed patrol vessels to watch over more than a hundred Chinese boats that it said were “swarming” the disputed area around a small reef in the South China Sea.

On Sunday, the PCG released photos and videos that it said show ships belonging to the Chinese Maritime Militia moored close to each other near the small boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef. This tactic allows them to create floating outposts at sea, according to Philippine media.

Manila considers Julian Felipe, as well as many other islets, atolls and reefs in the area it calls the West Philippine Sea, part of its exclusive economic zone.

PCG regional spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said that the Chinese vessels were not responding to radio calls from the Philippine patrol ships. He added that the Chinese fleet “is now estimated to have grown to more than 135 vessels dispersed and scattered within Julian Felipe Reef.”

National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano told reporters that the Philippine patrol ships were on a mission to “challenge and document the illegal presence” of the Chinese boats.

Beijing repeatedly rejected Manila’s accusations of “illegal” fishing and coral harvesting, insisting that its boats operate in areas under its sovereignty or in international waters.

In a statement on Thursday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Wu Qian accused Manila of “illegally” grounding a ship in disputed waters off Spratly Islands and making other moves that have “seriously violated” China’s national rights.

“The US instigated and emboldened the Philippine side to infringe upon China’s sovereignty, which escalated maritime tensions. The Chinese side firmly opposes that,” Wu said.

Washington has vowed to back its regional ally in the past, with President Joe Biden saying in October that “the United States’ defense commitment to the Philippines is ironclad.” (RT)