AFP PHOTO / Philippine Government
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The Philippines vowed Thursday, May 23, to "defend what is ours" as part of a standoff over a Chinese warship circling a South China Sea reef which is occupied by Filipino marines.
The Philippines this week protested the "provocative and illegal presence" of the warship near Ayungin Reef, also called Second Thomas Shoal, but China brushed off the complaint with an insistence that the area was part of its territory.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships and a frigate were spotted near the reef on Wednesday, May 21, approximately 120 nautical miles from the town of Rizal, Palawan.
Another 10 dinghies were seen, Gazmin said, possibly fishing in Philippine territory. He said the presence of the Chinese ships is "unusual."
"As far as we are concerned, that place is ours. It's not disputed," Gazmin said Thursday. "That is clearly an intrusion, a violation. They already entered our territory."
He said that the soldiers in Ayungin will "fight for what is ours… up to the last soldier standing," but dismissed talks of war with China.
The defense chief also said it is up to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to file a diplomatic complaint with China.
DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said Thursday the warship, along with two patrol vessels and a fleet of Chinese fishing boats, remained near the shoal.
"They should not be there. They do not have the right to be there... no one should doubt the resolve of the Filipino people to defend what is ours in that area," Hernandez said in a text message to AFP.
"Our navy and our coastguard are mandated to enforce the laws of the (Philippine) republic."
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.
Handful of Marines
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, and the area has for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conflict in the region.
Ayungin Reef is a tiny group of islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands chain, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Palawan, the nearest major landmass.
All claimants, except Brunei, have troops stationed on various islands and atolls in the Spratlys to assert their claims.
Ayungin is guarded by a handful of Philippine marines aboard a World War II-era ship that was deliberately grounded there in the late 1990s to serve as a base.
It is about 41 kilometers (25 miles) east of Mischief Reef, a Philippine-claimed outcrop that China occupied in 1995.
Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef are within the Philippines' internationally recognized exclusive economic zone, and surrounding waters are rich fishing grounds.
Last year China took control of Scarborough Shoal, another bountiful fishing area far closer to Filipino landmass than Chinese, after a similar stand-off ended with the Philippines retreating.
China's announced defense budget of $115 billion this year is nearly 100 times more than the Philippines'.