U.S., Philippines in talks over recent large gathering of Chinese ships in South China Sea

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed with the Philippine defense secretary on Saturday (April 10) concerns raised by the recent influx of Chinese “maritime militia ships” anchored in disputed waters in the South China Sea near the Philippines.

Austin spoke by phone with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as he flew from Washington to Israel for his international trip.

Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby said Austin and Lorenzana discussed the situation in the South China Sea and the recent gathering of Chinese fishing boats at Whitson Reef (known in China as Bull Yoke Reef). The large gathering of Chinese fishing boats has drawn criticism from Manila. China responded by saying those were just fishing boats.

Kirby said Austin proposed several measures to Lorenzana during the call to deepen defense cooperation, including “enhancing threat situational awareness in the South China Sea.” Kirby did not elaborate further on the issue.

Defense Department Press Secretary Kirby said earlier this past week that the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group, as well as the amphibious ship USS Makin Island, are operating in the South China Sea.

The U.S. does not have a permanent military presence in the Philippines, but has on occasion moved troops to the Philippines under the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement.

The U.S. has criticized the recent build-up of Chinese ships in waters close to the Philippines. This is one of the U.S. moves to criticize Beijing’s intimidation of smaller countries in the region.