THE PHILIPPINES has asked China to explain the increased presence of Chinese vessels near the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Sunday, expressing “grave concern.”
Lorenzana said the Philippine Air Force had confirmed reports on the presence of several Chinese barges at Panatag Shoal in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The Air Force on Saturday took photos of the Chinese vessels in the disputed waterways, he said.
“There were four Coast Guard ships, one guarding the entrance to the shoal, and six other ships colored blue in varying configurations,” said the Cabinet official.
Four of the vessels looked like barges and two appeared like troop ships.
“No dredging work has been seen. However, the presence of so many ships, other than Coast Guard, in the area is cause for grave concern,” Lorenzana said.
“The [Department of Foreign Affairs] already has called the attention of the Chinese ambassador and demanded an explanation,” he added.
Panatag Shoal, which is located just 230 kilometers from the island of Luzon, has long been a bone of contention between Manila and Beijing.
Lorenzana said that earlier this year, the Chinese tried to bring in dredging barges in an apparent attempt to turn Panatag into an artificial island but were dissuaded by the United States.
“If they try to construct anything in Scarborough it will have far-reaching adverse effect on the security situation,” he added.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment.
On Friday in Davao del Norte, President Rodrigo Duterte warned Beijing its military buildup in the disputed waters could disrupt trade and become a potential “flashpoint.”
China appears to be building new structures in the disputed Panatag Shoal, also called Bajo de Masinloc, the President revealed.
“I read the report that the Coast Guard made little trips near them and there are a lot of barges. What is the purpose of a barge? … I think they are starting at Bajo de Masinloc and this would be another ruckus there,” he said.
Duterte has said he intends to ask Beijing—possibly at a regional summit in Laos this week—if they are building up the shoal despite an international court ruling rejecting most of China’s claims in the resource-rich area.
A UN-backed tribunal ruled in July that China’s claims to almost all of the strategic sea had no legal basis and its construction of artificial islands in disputed waters was illegal.
The United States has warned of “actions” if Beijing extends its military expansion to the Scarborough Shoal.
China has sought to assert its claims in the South China Sea by building a network of artificial islands capable of supporting military operations.
Its massive land reclamation has prompted criticism from the US and claimant countries, with Washington warning it endangers freedom of navigation in international waters.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the sea, through which over $5 trillion in annual trade passes.
Panatag Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and 650 kilometers away from the nearest major Chinese landmass, is a particular flashpoint.
China took control of the shoal in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy.
Duterte, who took office in June, had earlier vowed to mend ties with China after his predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd angered Beijing by filing the arbitration case in 2013.