MANILA, Philippines (AP) — China recently deployed navy and coast guard ships in a cluster of uninhabited sandbars in the disputed South China Sea amid concerns that the Philippines may build structures on them, two Filipino security officials said Tuesday. The government, however, said the issue was quickly resolved amid the Asian neighbors' friendlier ties.
Two senior Philippine security officials told The Associated Press that three Chinese navy ships, a coast guard vessel and 10 fishing boats began keeping watch on Sandy Cay on Aug. 12 after a group of Filipino fishermen were spotted on the sandbars. The Filipinos eventually left but the Chinese stayed on.
The two spoke on condition of anonymity, saying only the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila has been authorized to publicly discuss issues related to the country's territorial disputes with China. The foreign affairs department, however, has refused to divulge details of the situation at Sandy Cay, a cluster of three sandbars.
A senior Philippine diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly, said China "is concerned that we will build" structures on the sandbars. Chinese and Philippine officials have quietly worked to resolve the issue in recent days, said the diplomat, who is involved in the talks.
A government security report seen by the AP says three Chinese navy ships, a Chinese coast guard ship and 10 Chinese fishing vessels took positions off Sandy Cay. Its nearest sandbar is about 2.5 nautical miles (4.6 kilometers) from Philippine-occupied Thitu Island.
On Aug. 15, a blue Chinese helicopter flew low off Thitu's southwest coast, the report said.
Philippine troops and villagers based at Thitu call it Pag-asa —Tagalog for hope — while the Chinese call the island Zhongye Dao.
The Chinese military presence near Thitu sparked concerns in Manila.
Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who has studied the disputes extensively, said the Chinese navy ships and other vessels encroached in the Philippine island's 12-nautical mile (22-kilometer) territorial waters.
"In short, Sandy Cay is a Philippine land territory that is being seized, to put it mildly, or being invaded, to put it frankly, by China," Carpio said in a statement over the weekend.
He said President Rodrigo Duterte and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano have the constitutional duty to defend and protect Philippine territory.
"The very least that they could do now is to vigorously protest this invasion of Philippine territory by China," Carpio said. "If both are courageous, they should send a Philippine navy ship to guard Sandy Cay and if the Chinese navy ships attack the Philippine navy vessel, they should invoke the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty."
The 1951 treaty binds the allies to come to the aid of each other when attacked.
Cayetano, however, told reporters Tuesday that the issue has been diplomatically resolved and denied that China has invaded Sandy Cay.
"Let me assure you, there is no more problem in that area," Cayetano told reporters, declining to provide details. "But it is not true that there was an attempt to invade or seize it."
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said people with ulterior motives were seeking to "stir up conflicts between China and the Philippines."
She offered no further details on China's activities in the area. "What I want to stress is that China has been committed to resolving relevant disputes peacefully through negotiation and consultation with the sovereign states directly concerned," Hua said.
Much-friendlier ties between Manila and Beijing under Duterte have allowed both governments to manage their disputes better. Since he took office in June last year, Duterte has courted Chinese trade and assistance and taken a non-confrontational approach to their territorial disputes.
Despite such tact, Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez said the Duterte administration would never trade the national interest for economic concessions.
"If our relationship with our neighbors isn't this good, the situation in the West Philippine Sea will be much, much worse," Cayetano said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Duterte told reporters over dinner Monday that he has been assured by China's ambassador in Manila, Zhao Jianhua, and the Chinese foreign ministry that Beijing has no plans to occupy or build structures on Sandy Cay.
One of the Philippine security officials said the military has been monitoring the Chinese presence at Sandy Cay but added it was difficult to check if Beijing's ships were still there due to recent bad weather in the remote offshore region.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano in Manila and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.