Experts have warned the blue-painted fishing vessels and their crews are almost impossible to challenge without triggering a military confrontation in the South China Sea. Analysts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore said it is the “largest number of vessels gathered at any time at one Spratly reef”. The vessels are reportedly stocked with automatic weapons and have a top speed faster than 90 percent of the world’s fishing boats.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “Due to the maritime situation, some fishing boats have been taking shelter from the wind near Niu’e Jiao, which is quite normal.
“We hope relevant sides can view this in a rational light.”
While the Chinese Embassy insisted there is “no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged”.
It comes as the European Union called out China on Saturday for endangering peace in the South China Sea and urged all parties to abide by a 2016 tribunal ruling which rejected most of China’s claim to sovereignty in the sea, but which Beijing has rejected.
READ MORE: Japan warned to stay out of Taiwan dispute or face a ‘beating’
The EU last week released a new policy aimed at stepping up its influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rising power.
The Philippines on Friday protested to China over its failure to withdraw what it called as “threatening” boats believed to be manned by maritime militia around the disputed Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef.
“Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region,” a EU spokesperson said in a statement on Saturday.
EU reiterated its strong opposition to “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and international rules-based order”.
The Chinese statement also insisted that China’s sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea were formed in the “long course of history and consistent with international law” and rejected the 2016 tribunal ruling as “null and void”.
“The South China Sea should not become a tool for certain countries to contain and suppress China, much less a wrestling ground for major-power rivalry,” the Chinese statement said.
China is increasingly worried that Europe and other countries are heeding US President Joe Biden’s call for a “coordinated approach” towards China, which had so far materialised in the form of sanctions over its security crackdown in Hong Kong and treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month said Washington “stands by its ally, the Philippines,” in the face of China’s massing maritime militia at Whitsun Reef.