The Philippines military this week released images of Chinese ships it said were capable of dredging sand around the Scarborough Shoal — a small but strategic reef and fertile fishing ground 130 miles (200 kilometers) west from the Philippine island of Luzon.
Beijing has denied it is reclaiming land, saying that while Chinese coast guard vessels patrol the waters around the shoal, which it calls Huangyandao, they were there for “law enforcement.”
“The situation has not changed. There are no dredging or building activities there,” said a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Philippines was seeking clarification from Beijing about the ships.
It’s one of a number of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, which is home to a messy territorial dispute.
Abella said Manila was communicating with Chinese officials on the presence of the ships, through diplomatic and “back door” channels — primarily through the country’s special envoy to China, former President Fidel Ramos.
The images were released shortly before leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Chinese leaders met in Laos for a regional summit.
In the chairman’s statement on Wednesday, ASEAN said that land reclamation and “escalation of activities” in the waters had “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”
It didn’t mention China by name.