China tries to nick another speck in the sea from the Philippines

THE CHINESE ships that appeared around Whitsun Reef in March were unusual for fishing vessels. They seemed to do little fishing, for a start. Satellite images revealed them to be pristine and lined up with military precision. China said the ships were simply sheltering from bad weather. But the Philippine government said they belonged to China’s “maritime militia”, a naval auxiliary force under the command of the People’s Liberation Army. The result is the latest stand-off in the South China Sea.

The Philippines says that Whitsun Reef, which it calls Julian Felipe Reef, lies within its “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ)—the area within 200 nautical miles of a country’s coastline over which it has certain rights. The reef, one of many in the Spratly Islands in the centre of the South China Sea, does not look like prime property. Some 13km long and shaped like a boomerang, it appears above water only at low tide. It is about 320km from the Philippines proper and about 1,060km from China. Yet China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, has built and occupied artificial islands around similar outcrops in the Spratlys, such as Johnson Reef, 50km to the west, and Fiery Cross Reef, 180km to the west (see map). They now have airstrips, radar systems and a variety of missiles.

In 2016 an international tribunal in The...

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