China ran a blockade around a disputed atoll in the South China Sea for at least a month, denying access to rich fishing grounds there, Philippine officials claimed yesterday, but Beijing said its ships were only there to tow a boat that ran aground.
China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday that its vessels have since left the Jackson Atoll.
Mr Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, mayor of the town that claims jurisdiction over Philippine-held Thitu Island near the atoll, said China stationed at least seven ships to prevent fishing boats from reaching Jackson Atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef with closely spaced rocky outcrops 260km west of Palawan province. He said the Chinese ships came after a fishing boat from Palawan ran aground inside the atoll's lagoon.
Jackson Atoll is 61km north of Mischief Reef, where China is said to be building a 3km airstrip.
Mr Bito-onon told reporters yesterday that China could be setting up an "imaginary checkpoint" to choke access to a Philippine village on Thitu Island, where 300 civilians, including dozens of children, live.
Supply boats from Palawan use Jackson Atoll as a pitstop on their way to Thitu, said Mr Bito-onon.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it sent rescue and salvage ships to the atoll because a Filipino-owned boat was abandoned there and posed a danger to vessels passing through the area.
Jackson Atoll, Mischief Reef and Thitu Island are all part of the Spratly Archipelago in the southern half of the 3.5-million-sq-km South China Sea. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) worth of trade pass each year. Contesting it are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Philippine officials and analysts had expressed concern that China could be planning to expand its territories in the Spratlys by blockading Jackson Atoll, the way it did in 2012 when it seized control of Scarborough Shoal, north of the Spratlys, from the Philippines after a two-month naval stand-off.
Scarborough Shoal has the same land features as Jackson Atoll and is also surrounded by rich fishing grounds. Chinese Coast Guard ships have been preventing Philippine fishing boats from sailing near Scarborough, leading to several cat-and-mouse skirmishes.
"This is a gradual, but relentless, campaign of squeezing out other claimant states with minimum possible casualties and need for skirmishes," said political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University.
US Defence Secretary Ash Carter warned China on Tuesday against what he called "aggressive" actions in the region, saying there would be "specific consequences" to militarisation of the South China Sea.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Washington yesterday to "stop exaggerating and sensationalising" the issue.
Tensions in the South China Sea have been building up since China began dredging sand and coral to transform seven reefs in the Spratlys into islands large enough to hold 3km-long airstrips, naval harbours and mall-size bunkers.
The US has challenged the land reclamations by flying surveillance planes and sailing warships over and around at least two of China's artificial islands. China last month began deploying surface-to-air missiles and stationing fighter jets on an island in the Paracel Archipelago in the northern half of the South China Sea.