VIENTIANE • The Philippines expressed "grave concern" yesterday and demanded an explanation from China's ambassador over what it said was an increasing number of Chinese boats near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
A Philippines air force plane flew over the rocky outcrop on Saturday and spotted more boats than usual in a flotilla China has maintained since seizing the shoal after a tense stand-off in 2012, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
"There were four Chinese coast guard ships and six other vessels, including blue-coloured barges, around Scarborough Shoal," he said in a text message sent to reporters. "The presence of many ships other than coast guard in the area is a cause of grave concern."
China's embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment. Though the shoal is merely a few rocks poking above the sea, it is important to the Philippines because of its tranquil waters and rich stocks of fish.
Manila says China's blockade of the shoal is a violation of international law. The dispute has become more significant since an arbitral tribunal on July 12 ruled that no one country has sovereign rights over activity in the Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground for the Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese.
China has refused to recognise the ruling and the latest comment from the Philippines could cause a stir ahead of two regional summits in Laos from tomorrow, where leaders of South-east Asian states as well as China, Japan and the United States will meet.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said last Friday he had received an "unsettling" intelligence report showing China had sent barges to the contested Scarborough Shoal and had appeared to begin construction in the area for the first time.
He wants China to abide by the tribunal ruling, but has pledged not raise the issue next week. He wants to smooth the way for bilateral negotiations and last month sent former president Fidel Ramos as his special envoy to meet Chinese representatives in Hong Kong.
Defence Secretary Lorenzana said Beijing had earlier this year tried to send dredging barges to the shoal, but there was no sign of any reclamation activity so far. China has previously used barges to dredge sand for its seven man-made islands in the Spratlys.
"We don't know yet if those barges are precursors of future dredging operations," he said. "If they try to construct anything in Scarborough, it will have far-reaching adverse effect on the security situation."
China's maintains claims to almost the entire South China Sea, which is a vital waterway for global trade. Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam have competing jurisdictional claims.
United States President Barack Obama pressed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Saturday on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, urging Beijing to uphold its legal obligations and stressing the United States' commitments to its regional allies.
Tensions over the disputed waters between China and its neighbours were expected to hang over the G-20 summit, which opened in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou yesterday.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE