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US backs Philippine protest vs. China over large presence of vessels in West PHL Sea

The United States on Tuesday backed the Philippines' latest protest against Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea, calling the presence of its more than 200 militia vessels in the area provocative and a threat to regional peace and stability.

"We stand with the Philippines, our oldest treaty ally in Asia," said US Embassy spokesman Heather Fabrikant in a statement.

Adding an important voice to Manila's diplomatic protest against China, the embassy said it shares "the concerns of our Philippine allies."

"The [People's Republic of China] uses maritime militia to intimidate, provoke, and threaten other nations, which undermines peace and security in the region," Fabrikant said.

From 220, around 183 Chinese militia vessels remain off Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, which were initially spotted  on March 7.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has appealed to China to pull out the vessels, saying the deployment breaches maritime rights and sovereignty.

"We note Secretary of National Defense Lorenzana’s call for the PRC to recall the boats and Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Toodoro) Locsin’s filing of a diplomatic protest," Fabrikant said.

The Chinese embassy has denied that the vessels were operated by Chinese maritime militia. It said that the vessels are only "seeking shelter" near the reef, which they claimed is part of China's Nansha Islands or Spratlys in the South China Sea.

The US Embassy disputed China's claim, saying "Chinese boats have been mooring in this area for many months in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the weather."

Julian Felipe Reef, called Niu’e Jiao by China, is a large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs (Union Reefs), located approximately 175 Nautical Miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.

It is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf, over which the country enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources which encompass both living resources, such as fish, and non-living resources such as oil and natural gas.

China and the US are at odds over the long-seething territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which is being claimed nearly in its entirety by Beijing.

Over the years China has turned several former reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways and surface to air missiles.

Although Washington is not a party to the disputes, it has declared that it is in its national interest to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested waters where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims. -MDM, GMA News