THE PHILIPPINES expects Chinese vessels moored at a reef it claims in the South China Sea to leave the area soon, according to the presidential palace.

“There is no controversy because they are not fighting to stay there,” presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. told an online news briefing in Filipino on Thursday, citing strong relations between the two countries.

“In the spirit of friendship, we expect them not to remain there for long,” he added.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has filed a diplomatic protest against China after more than 200 vessels, believed to be Chinese militia, moored at Whitsun Reef.

DFA this week demanded that China withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets at the reef that it calls Julian Felipe, accusing it of infringing on Philippine sovereignty.

It urged China to order its fishing vessels to stop environmentally destructive activities at the reef, which it said is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

The Philippine government earlier said it was concerned that the Chinese militia vessels had massed at the reef with no actual fishing activities.

They had their full white lights turned on during night time, a national task force overseeing border disputes with Beijing said in a statement at the weekend, citing the Philippine Coast Guard.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila on Monday said the reef, which it calls Niu’e Jiao, is part of China’s Nansha Qundao.

It said some Chinese fishing vessels had taken shelter near Niu’e Jiao due to rough sea conditions.

The Chinese Embassy said the vessels there were not Chinese militia, adding that speculations cause “unnecessary irritation.”

Mr. Roque said the Philippines stands by a United Nations ruling in 2016 invalidating China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a nine-dash line map.

“We stand by the arbitral award,” he said. “The President’s stance has not changed.”

Meanwhile, former Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio on Wednesday said there was no storm when the vessels moored at the reef.

“It’s possible that China is encroaching on our maritime zone but softening it by sending us vaccines,” he told the ABS-CBN News Channel. “It’s part of their PR effort to soften the blow but we should not fall for that.”

The Philippines on Wednesday took delivery of about 400,000 vaccine doses donated by China. The shipment was on top of 600,000 doses that it donated and that arrived last month. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza