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China Urged To Withdraw Ships From Reef In South China Sea

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A large number of Chinese boats anchored near a coral reef in the South China Sea is causing international concern. Both China and the Philippines lay claim to this reef. Western allies have now joined the Philippines in urging China to withdraw. NPR's Julie McCarthy has the story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies shows a large presence of Chinese boats has been anchoring around Whitsun Reef since December, three months longer than previously reported, and that by early March, the number of the fishing vessels moored in the bay of this boomerang-shaped reef had grown to some 200.

JAY BATONGBACAL: They are now essentially occupying Whitsun Reef by the mere presence of their vessels.

MCCARTHY: Jay Batongbacal directs the Institute for Maritime Affairs at the University of the Philippines.

BATONGBACAL: And the satellite photos also show that the decks of these vessels are very, very clean. It's as if they're brand-new. They were observed to be only stationary and really not conducting any fishing operations.

MCCARTHY: In the last week, the Philippines has twice told the Chinese to quit the reef, which lies within its exclusive economic zone. Why Manila didn't challenge the presence of these boats earlier isn't clear. But Gregory Poling with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the only country with a real grasp of day-to-day traffic in the South China Sea is China.

GREGORY POLING: Not the United States, not Vietnam and certainly not the Philippines, which probably has the worst maritime patrol and surveillance capabilities in the region. The reason this got spotted is because it's pretty hard to miss 200 boats.

MCCARTHY: Poling says the boats are part of China's vast fishing fleet, which doubles as a maritime militia to intimidate neighbors.

POLING: China has a maritime militia that allows it to deploy hundreds of, you know, half-trained, half-cocked paramilitaries to go threaten Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen and oil and gas operators.

MCCARTHY: Beijing says it has no such militia and that its ships are only sheltering from rough seas. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged to local television that the seas were choppy but added that the Chinese vessels had warned his patrol boats do not get near. Lorenzana insisted the Chinese leave when the seas calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DELFIN LORENZANA: It is very choppy outside. But inside shore, the reef, very calm (non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Because it's alarming the Filipino people, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORENZANA: (Non-English language spoken) Because it's alarming the Filipino people (non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: China claims nearly all of the South China Sea for itself. It's built and militarized several artificial islands. China's latest move sparks fears it's about to occupy Whitsun Reef. Batongbacal says this sort of salami slicing is part of China's larger strategy.

BATONGBACAL: That's actually the objective of the Chinese strategy, to establish de facto control and dominance over the entire South China Sea through these incremental moves.

MCCARTHY: Defense Secretary Lorenzana said no one has left the reef yet. But satellite images taken Monday show the number of ships moored at Whitsun Reef dropping below 60. Gregory Poling says historically this has indicated a tactical retreat.

POLING: Once China moves in, it doesn't leave. It might decrease the numbers. It might play nice for a little while. Maybe it ratchets down the tension for short-term political gain. But it is unlikely to vacate this reef.

MCCARTHY: The United States, Japan, the U.K., Australia and Canada have all urged China to withdraw for the sake of regional security. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S "WHILE YOU'RE FADING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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