Beijing: An unusually large number of Chinese vessels have been positioned close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea near the coast of the Philippines for the last week, despite warnings by the United States that China should stay away.
The Philippine defense department has photographs of four Chinese Coast Guard ships, and six other vessels, less than a mile from Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by the Philippines and China, the defense minister, Delfin Lorenzana, said in an interview.
The presence of the Chinese ships during the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hangzhou, China, where President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping met on Saturday, seemed particularly provocative.
Obama specifically warned Xi at a meeting in Washington in March not to start building an artificial island at Scarborough Shoal. White House officials said that Obama planned to deliver the same message to Xi at their meeting in Hangzhou.
US officials have been waiting to see what China would do around Scarborough Shoal after the summit meeting, assuming that the Chinese wanted a seamless conference.
But the meeting has already been rocked by a chaotic arrival when the Chinese did not provide a rolling staircase for Obama to disembark from the main door of Air Force One on his arrival in Hangzhou on Saturday.
Obama got off the plane by a staircase carried on board Air Force One and released from the belly of the aircraft. Scarborough Shoal has been the center 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 US 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.
US military officials fear that China plans to build a bigger military base on Scarborough Shoal, which lies about 140 miles from the coast of the Philippines. In a sweeping ruling against China on the South China Sea in July, an international tribunal in The Hague focused on Scarborough Shoal.
The tribunal said China had violated international law by interfering with fishing, endangering ships of the Philippines and failing to protect the marine environment at the shoal, the tribunal said.
Some of the Chinese vessels spotted off the shoal last week could be dredges to do preliminary building work, said Lorenzana, the defense minister. 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. The six other vessels, one with what looked like large cable-laying machinery, were new additions spotted by Filipino fishermen last week, he said.
A Philippine Navy plane was then dispatched to take photos. The six vessels that look like civilian ships could be navy ships “masquerading” as other ships, Lorenzana said.
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, Lorenzana said. Now that the Philippines had photographs, the images would be taken to the Chinese Embassy as evidence, he added. The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, said on Friday in Davao City that it was “unsettling” to read his government’s intelligence reports that a lot of Chinese ships were in the Scarborough Shoal area.
Duterte is scheduled to attend an East Asian summit meeting in Laos on Tuesday. The Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, is also expected to be there, but Duterte said he may reserve stating his concern to the Chinese for another occasion, presumably when Xi is present.
“There will be a time when I have to make a stand and I have to make it clear to China, ‘You know every time you talk about sole ownership or even entitlements there, it’s something which is totally unacceptable to us,'” he told a crowd of supporters in Davao City on Friday.
Scarborough Shoal was at the center of a major dispute between the Philippines and China in 2012 after Chinese fishing vessels were found in the center of the lagoon, traditional Philippine fishing grounds.
The state department brokered a deal that called for the Chinese and the Philippine vessels to leave the shoal. The Chinese later defied the deal, placing a cordon across the mouth of the shoal and positioning a coast guard vessel nearby.