MANILA -- The Philippines' defense minister has accused China of illegally occupying areas within Manila's exclusive economic zone and said Beijing's South China Sea claims exist only "in their imaginations."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana's blistering remarks on Sunday came amid a new spat over parts of the disputed waterway, which has also become central to the U.S.-China rivalry in the region.
The Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs on Thursday said it has filed a diplomatic protest over the China Coast Guard's confiscation of Filipino fishermen's equipment in the Scarborough Shoal in May.
It also "resolutely objected" to China's continuing radio challenges to Philippine aircraft patrolling over contested waters.
Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, responded on Friday, saying the China Coast Guard was conducting "law enforcement operations" and accused the Philippines of infringing on its sovereignty by sending military aircraft into air space adjacent to islands and reefs garrisoned by China. "China urges the Philippine side to immediately stop illegal provocations," Zhao said in a regular press briefing.
Lorenzana said the Scarborough Shoal is located within Manila's exclusive economic zone. "Their so-called historical rights over an area enclosed by their Nine-Dash Line doesn't exist except in their imaginations," Lorenzana said, referring to the demarcation China uses in asserting its expansive claims of the body of water, including waters claimed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
After a monthslong standoff with the Philippines in 2012, Beijing took over the shoal, about 120 nautical miles off the Philippines' Luzon Island and approximately 400 nautical miles from China's Hainan Island. The Philippines the following year filed an arbitration case against China in The Hague. The court sided with Manila in 2016, ruling that China's claims had no legal basis.
"They are the ones who have been doing provocations by illegally occupying some features within our EEZ. Hence, they have no right to claim they are enforcing their laws," Lorenzana said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July said Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea "are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them."
The latest tensions come as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is seeking priority allocation to China's COVID-19 vaccines.
In July, the Philippine and Chinese foreign ministers reaffirmed bilateral ties and agreed that the maritime dispute is "not the sum total" of their relationship, according to a statement from Manila.