China today denied 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 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.
Duterte has said he intends to ask Beijing — possibly at a regional summit in Laos this week — if they are reclaiming the shoal despite an international court ruling rejecting most of China’s claims in the resource-rich area.
Yesterday Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a Philippine air force plane saw four Chinese coastguard ships, two barge-like vessels and two suspected troop ships near the shoal on Saturday.
“The Chinese side has maintained the patrol by coastguard vessels in relevant waters and there have also been some fishing boats for fishing operations in the relevant waters and the situation have always been like that, and has not changed,” said Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman.
Hua, at a regular briefing today, cautioned the Philippines not to “hype up” the situation.
The shoal, which is just 230 kilometres from the main Philippine island of Luzon, has long been a bone of contention.
China took control of it in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine navy.
A UN-backed tribunal ruled in July that China’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea had no legal basis and 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 it endangers freedom of navigation in international waters.
The United States has warned of “actions” if Beijing extends its military expansion to Scarborough Shoal.
Apart from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have partial claims to the sea, through which over USD 5 trillion in annual trade passes.