Two days after reports claimed that a large number of Chinese vessels were positioned at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippines government on Wednesday (7 September) released images of what it said were the same.
Although it has not given any reason for releasing the images now, it has come at the time when leaders are meeting in Laos for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit. It is thought to be an apparent diplomatic strategy by the Philippines to express its "grave concerns" over China's dominance in the territory.
According to a Filipino official, the release of 10 images and maps of the Scarborough Shoal was ordered by the country's Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana, who is also at the summit in Laos's capital Vientiane, Reuters reported. The regional summit is being attended by the prime minister of China, although it is not an Asean member.
The photographs show four Chinese coast guard ships and six other vessels that are sited less than a mile from the disputed shoal, which is claimed by both Manila and Beijing, the New York Times reported.
The Philippine president's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, told the media that the country is disturbed by the presence of the Chinese vessels. He said both the countries are discussing the issue but gave no further details."There are talks at this stage," Abella said.
China has not commented on the presence of its vessels. But Lorenzana said if Beijing confirms its actions, Manila would lodge an official protest as he said there are possibilities the vessels could be used for dredging as part of initial building work.
President Rodrigo Duterte's administration demanded an explanation from Beijing's ambassador for positioning Chinese vessels in the shoals. However, it remains unknown whether the tough-talking president – who has been been downplaying his country's victory in The Hague ruling – would openly raise the South China Sea issue during the Asean meeting.
Ahead of the summit, the Filipino defence minister said a Philippines air force aircraft patrolled over the shoal and spotted more boats than usual that China has maintained since Beijing took over the shoal in 2012 after a tense standoff with Manila.
The UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of the Philippines and declared the Scarborough Shoal was a fishing ground for all. However, a security official told Reuters that Duterte's government is unable to explain to Filipino fishermen as to why they are unable to fish in the disputed waters despite winning the case.
Beijing has reportedly been building many islands in the hotly contested resource-rich waters, in which it has unilateral claims, citing historical reasons. It is said to be escalating tensions in the waters further.
The US military warned China against any provocation in the region as it feared Beijing might turn Scarborough into another island. If China succeeds, it is said to give the country control over a swathe of the waters that is used as a pathway to the Taiwan Strait.