A large number of Chinese vessels have been positioned close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea near the coast of the Philippines, despite warnings by the United States that Beijing should refrain from such provocations.
The New York Times quoted Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana as saying that the Philippine Defense Department has photographs of four Chinese Coast Guard ships and six other vessels, less than a mile from the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
This comes despite President Obama holding discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the South China Sea issue, ahead of the G20 Summit meeting in Hangzhou, China.
Obama reportedly insisted that Beijing needs to “abide by its obligations” to an international maritime treaty in the dispute and the Hague international arbitrary court ruling, while Xi maintained that China would continue to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights in the disputed waters.
In the foreign ministry statement issued following the meeting between the two delegates, Beijing urged Washington to drop its “double standards on the South China Sea” and play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the region.
In March, Obama had specifically warned Xi at a meeting in Washington in March not to start building an island at Scarborough Shoal.
The appearance of ships while global leaders were still in Hangzhou was not expected.
Scarborough Shoal has been the centre of attention as one of the most desirable places in the South China Sea for the Chinese to convert into an artificial island. It is close to military bases in the Philippines where the United States military has access.
In the last several years, the Chinese have built a group of artificial islands with military capabilities in the Spratly Archipelago, not far from Scarborough Shoal.
Washington fears that China plans to build a bigger military base on Scarborough Shoal. Some of the Chinese vessels spotted off the shoal last week could be dredges to do preliminary building work, said Lorenzana.
One of the vessels was actually in the mouth of the shoal, he added.
Four Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been permanently positioned near the shoal, an area of about 56 square miles, in recent weeks, he said adding that the other six vessels, one with what looked like large cable-laying machinery, were new additions spotted by Filipino fishermen last week.
Lorenzana said that the Chinese ambassador in Manila had been warned about the ships last week, but the envoy denied that Chinese vessels were in the vicinity of the shoal.