BEIJING - A big fleet of Chinese fishing vessels arrived at the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) on Sunday, state media said, amid tensions with China's neighbors over rival claims to the area.
The Philippines, locked in a territorial row with China over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea, on Monday said the Chinese fishing fleet should not cross into Philippine territory in the Spratlys.
But the Chinese fishing expedition is apparently not a show of force directed at the Philippines but at Vietnam, which claims the Paracel Islands and parts of the Spratlys where the fleet arrived on Sunday.
The fleet of 30 fishing vessels arrived near the Yongshu Reef in the afternoon after setting off on Thursday from the Chinese province of Hainan, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Yongshu Reef is the Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys that both China and Vietnam claim.
Their competing claims erupted into a naval skirmish on March 14, 1988.
Vietnam lost the firefight. It lost one vessel and took home another heavily damaged.
Vietnam's loss left China in effective control of the reef. China later occupied seven other reefs in the area. Today it has a maritime observation station on Johnson South Reef.
The Philippines claims parts of the Spratlys, but not Johnson South Reef.
Even so, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday said that the Chinese fishing vessels "must not intrude into the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines."
In a statement issued after news of the fleet's arrival reached Manila, the DFA asked China to "respect the sovereign rights of the Philippines to the resources" within the country's 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
Chinese fishing boats regularly travel to the Spratlys, a potentially oil-rich archipelago that China claims as part of its territory on historical grounds.
But the fleet is the largest ever launched from Hainan, according to the Xinhua report.
The fleet includes a 3,000-ton supply ship, and a patrol vessel has also traveled to the area to provide protection, the report said.
The vessels will spend the next five to 10 days fishing in the area, it added.
The fleet's arrival came after China earlier Sunday extricated a naval frigate that got stranded four days earlier on Hasa-Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal), part of Philippine territory in the Spratlys.
The Philippines, however, did not lodge a diplomatic protest over the incident, saying the stranding of the vessel in its exclusive economic zone was likely an accident.
"We don't believe that there were ill-intentions that accompanied the presence of that ship in our [exclusive economic zone]," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Sunday.
"As far as filing a diplomatic protest is concerned, my stance is that we will probably not do that," Del Rosario said.
But Malacañang said Monday that the Philippines would not call the incident an accident until after its confirmation by a foreign affairs department investigation.