,MANILA, March 21 - The Philippines expressedconcern about hundreds of Chinese military vessels it said werespotted this month in the disputed South China Sea, the latestexample of tension in the crucial waterway. The Philippine Coast Guard reported that some 220 vessels,believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel,were seen moored in line formation at a reef on March 7, across-government task force said late on Saturday. Foreign minister Teodoro Locsin, asked whether he would filea diplomatic protest over the ships' presence, told a journaliston Twitter: "Only if the generals tell me. In my watch foreignpolicy is the fist in the iron glove of the armed forces." The National Task Force for the West Philippine Seaexpressed concern about overfishing and destruction of themarine environment, as well as risks to safety of navigation. China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to arequest for comment on Sunday, and calls to the Chinese embassyin Manila seeking comment went unanswered. An international tribunal in 2016 invalidated China's claimto 90% of the South China Sea, but Beijing does not recognisethe ruling. China in recent years has built islands in thedisputed waters, putting air strips on some of them. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei allclaim parts of the sea. In January, the Philippines protested a new Chinese lawallowing its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels, describingit as a "threat of war". The United States has repeatedly denounced what it calledChina's attempts to bully neighbours with competing interests,while Beijing has criticised Washington for what it callsinterference in its internal affairs. The Chinese vessels were at the Julian Felipe Reef, alsocalled Whitsun Reef, in Manila's exclusive economic zone, thetask force said, describing the site as "a largeboomerang-shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast ofPagkakaisa Banks and Reefs." "Despite clear weather at the time, the Chinese vesselsmassed at the reef showed no actual fishing activities and hadtheir full white lights turned on during night time," it said ina statement. The Philippines vowed to monitor the situation and "topeacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives onenvironmental protection, food security and freedom ofnavigation" in the South China Sea. REUTERS
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