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More than 200 Chinese fishing vessels believed to be crewed by militia have been spotted “in line formation” near a disputed reef west of Palawan Island, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said, prompting the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest over the “incursion” Sunday night.

CHINESE ARMADA? At least 220 Chinese fishing vessels believed crewed by militia have been spotted near Julian Felipe Reef, a disputed isle in the West Philippine Sea, prompting Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to ask China to remove the boats while Foreign Affairs chief Teddy Locsin fires off another diplomatic protest. NTF-WPS photo

«We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory. We are committed to uphold our sovereign rights over the WPS,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Hours before Lorenzana made the statement, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said it has dispatched air and naval assets to confirm the Philippine Coast Guard report that some 220 Chinese vessels have massed off Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) some 320 kilometers west of Palawan Island on March 7.

«The Western Command ordered the dispatch of Air Force and Navy assets to conduct air and maritime sovereignty patrols to further validate the report,» AFP spokesman Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement.

It was unclear why it took the task force two weeks to report the March 7 incursion by the Chinese vessels into the country’s exclusive economic zone.

«Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vessels massed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities,» the NTF-WPS said.

The task force said this was a concern “due to the possible overfishing and destruction of the marine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation.»

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Sunday he lodged a diplomatic protest upon the recommendation of National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., chairman of the NTF-WPS.

“Diplomatic protest fired off tonight; can’t wait for first light,” Locsin said in a Twitter post.

“So recommended by General Esperon this noon by WhatsApp. I got the coordinates so to speak. And relayed to my legal artillery, “Fire at will.” Shell should be flying at first light,” Locsin added.

The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The United States has previously accused China of using maritime militia to «intimidate, coerce and threaten other nations» over its claims to almost the entire South China Sea.

The resource-rich waterway is also contested by several countries, including the Philippines.

China has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that ruled in favor of the Philippines and declared its assertion as without basis.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has cozied up to Beijing since taking power in 2016, set aside the ruling in exchange for Chinese trade and investment.

He has repeatedly said conflict with China would be futile and that the Philippines would lose and suffer heavily in the…

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Read More: DFA fires off protest vs. 220 Chinese vessels’ presence off Palawan

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