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Philippines mulls next move as Chinese 'fishing fleet' lingers in nearby waters

Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun or Julian Felipe reef remain in the Philippines’ territorial waters, according to Manila’s military Tuesday. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard-National Task Force West Philippine Sea /EPA-EFE
Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun or Julian Felipe reef remain in the Philippines’ territorial waters, according to Manila’s military Tuesday. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard-National Task Force West Philippine Sea /EPA-EFE

March 23 (UPI) -- The Philippines has not decided on its next move as a large fleet of Chinese vessels loiter in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday in statement that Manila seeks the departure of dozens of "unauthorized" Chinese fishing vessels near Julian Felipe reef, days after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he had filed a diplomatic protest over the deployment.

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"The Philippines demands that China promptly withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets in the vicinity and adjacent waters," the foreign affairs department said.

"China's continuing infringements ... notwithstanding the persistent and resolute protests of the government of the Republic of the Philippines, are contrary to China's commitments under international law and the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea."

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The declaration, a non-binding agreement signed 2002, has guided China and Southeast Asia on a code of conduct in the high seas.

But Beijing's policies in more recent years, including a territorial claim to more than 90% of the South China Sea and militarization of disputed islands have elevated tensions with neighbors and the United States.

China on Sunday had reportedly stationed 220 vessels in the disputed area. By Tuesday, some of the ships had left, leaving 183 there, according to Philippine news service Rappler.

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The Armed Forces of the Philippines said it is "still assessing the situation."

"Our mandate is to secure our territory so we really oppose any act of incursion in our territorial waters, including our exclusive economic zone," armed forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, according to Rappler.

"But on the other hand, the [National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea] takes into consideration other means. So we will jointly assess and decide what is the best course of action to take for the area."

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The armed forces said Tuesday that the Chinese ships are likely operating under Beijing's maritime militia.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila has raised concerns, according to reports.

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