The EU has 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. Last week, Brussels released a new policy aimed at stepping up its influence in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rising power. It comes as the Philippines protested to China over its failure to withdraw “threatening” boats believed to be manned by maritime militia around the disputed Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef.
An EU spokesperson said in a statement said: “Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region.”
EU reiterated its strong opposition to “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and international rules-based order”.
It urged all parties to resolve disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, and highlighted a 2016 international arbitration that had ruled in favor of the Philippines while invalidating most of China’s claims in the South China Sea.
China rejected EU’s accusation that its ships at Whitsun Reef, which China calls Niu’E Jiao, had endangered peace and security.
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The Chinese Mission to the EU in a statement on Saturday reiterated that the reef is part of China’s Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratly Islands, and that it was “reasonable and lawful” for Chinese fishing boats to operate there and shelter from the wind.
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.
The Philippine foreign ministry said maritime officials had observed the “continued unauthorised presence and activities” of 160 Chinese fishing and militia vessels around the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough shoal, as of April 20.
Five Chinese coastguard vessels were also spotted around the areas.
“The continued swarming and threatening presence of the Chinese vessels creates an atmosphere of instability and is a blatant disregard of the commitments by China to promote peace and stability in the region,” the foreign ministry said.
The Philippines announces a boosting of its presence of vessels in its EEZ. Under international law, foreign vessels are permitted to make “innocent passage” through a country’s EEZ.