MANILA, Philippines — The Chinese Embassy in Manila on Wednesday confirmed that Chinese ships and fishing boats are in the waters around the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, called Huangyan Dao in Mandarin.
“The Chinese side has maintained the presence of a number of coast guard vessels for law enforcement patrols. There are also some Chinese fishing boats around that area,” the embassy said.
“The situation has not changed. There are no dredging or building activities there,” it added.
The Chinese embassy also denied reports that the Chinese ambassador has met with the Philippines’ defense chief to explain the sightings.
“Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana quoted Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua as saying that the ‘vessels are transfering sand from one area to another. The Chinese Embassy would like to clarify that Ambassador Zhao has not yet had the honor to meet with His Honorable Defense Secretary Lorenzana, and the media must have misquoted him,” the embassy said.
The statement came following the Philippine government’s release of surveillance pictures of Chinese coast guard ships and barges around Scarborough just hours before the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended the regional summit. with Southeast Asian leaders in Laos.
Lorenzana said the situation is “very worrisome” if it were the start of reclamation activity.
“That area is ours. Once they seize an island, we can no longer recover it,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China hadn’t done anything to alter the circumstances in the waters surrounding the shoal.
“What I can tell you is that the situation in waters near Huangyan Island remains unchanged and China hasn’t made any new moves,” Hua said in Beijing, using the shoal’s Chinese name. “We should be highly alert against the mischief-making intentions of people who spread such groundless information in such situations.”
Asked how disturbed the Philippines was by the presence of the Chinese ships, Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella told a news conference: “Enough to announce it.”
Hours after the Philippines released the pictures, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met with Li and his aides. The South China Sea dispute was tackled at the closed-door meeting with some of the leaders, including Duterte, who reiterated calls for the conflicts to be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said.
He quoted the Chinese premier as saying that there was now a “positive direction” in Beijing’s relations with ASEAN and that the disputes should not affect overall relations.
The Chinese embassy, meanwhile, said it is “willing to work with the Philippine side to enhance mutual trust and promote development of bilateral relations.” — Camille Diola with reports from the Associated Press