BEIJING • China yesterday denied that it had begun building an artificial island at a South China Sea flashpoint and cautioned the Philippines not to "hype up" their maritime dispute.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said last Friday that he had received an "unsettling" intelligence report showing China had sent barges to the contested Scarborough Shoal and appeared to have begun construction in the area.
Mr Duterte has said that he intends to ask Beijing - possibly at an Asean summit in Laos this week - if it was reclaiming the shoal despite an international court ruling rejecting most of China's claims in the resource-rich area.
On Sunday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a Philippine air force plane had seen four Chinese coast guard ships, two barge-like vessels and two suspected troop ships near the shoal on Saturday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday: "The Chinese side has maintained the patrol by coast guard vessels in relevant waters and there have also been some fishing boats for fishing operations in the relevant waters and the situation has always been like that, and has not changed."
Ms Hua cautioned the Philippines not to "hype up" the situation.
The shoal, which is 230km from the main Philippine island of Luzon, has long been a bone of contention. China took control of it in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine navy.
A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled in July that China's claims to almost all of the South China Sea had no legal basis and that its construction of artificial islands in disputed waters was illegal.
China has sought to bolster its claims 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 that it endangers freedom of navigation in international waters.