It launched a new squadron – the Permanent Maritime Militia Unit – on Wednesday in Kien Giang province, in the Mekong Delta. The squadron is designed “to jointly protect the sovereignty of the sea and islands”, according to the nation’s Defense Ministry.

The unit has air and sea capabilities, and will conduct patrols while protecting fishermen.

It is the second force created by the Vietnamese military in the last few months, following a 131-strong squadron formed in April.

The latest South China Sea development comes as Filipinos bemoan a perceived encroachment of Beijing fishing vessels in disputed waters.

In March, the Philippines accused 200 Chinese vessels of anchoring at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands.

They suspected the vessels were manned by militia.

And, in May, Manila accused China of sending a further 100 ships to the region.

Beijing has denied these allegations, claiming vessels anchored in the reef to escape bad weather and rough seas.

“There is no Chinese maritime militia as alleged,” the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a statement.

“Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation.

“It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner.”

On Saturday, the Philippines celebrated its 123rd anniversary of its Declaration of Independence from Spain.

Commenting on China’s influence in the region, Zenaida Soriano, chairperson for Amihan National, said Independence Day “is a reminder that the national fight against colonizers and foreign oppressors is a fundamental part of Philippine history.”

Last week, the head of the Philippine armed forces visited one of the country’s controlled islands, angering Chinese officials.

Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), commended soldiers for protecting the island’s residents and “guarding the country’s territories” in the region.

Today, foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China agreed to hold a meeting in which they would discuss restraint in the South China Sea and avoid actions that could escalate tensions.

The meeting follows a suspected “incursion” by 16 Chinese aircraft into Malaysian airspace.

The aircraft were reportedly spotted within 60 nautical miles off Sarawak state of Malaysian Borneo.

Malaysian authorities described the incident as a “serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety”.