Philippine coast guardsmen survey several ships believed to be Chinese militia vessels at Sabina Shoal in the South China Sea in April 2021.

Philippine coast guardsmen survey several ships believed to be Chinese militia vessels at Sabina Shoal in the South China Sea in April 2021. (Philippine coast guard)

Manila and Beijing have opened a new front in the South China Sea, with the Philippines vowing to challenge Chinese efforts to reclaim more land in contested waters.

A mound of crushed coral recently discovered at Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands is evidence of Chinese island-building, Philippine coast guard spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela told reporters Saturday in Quezon city, near Manila.

Underwater film, shot by the coast guard at the shoal and televised Monday by Japanese national broadcaster NHK, shows a large white mound on the seafloor.

The shoal, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, is 87 miles from the western Philippine island of Palawan, where U.S. Marines and sailors were training with Philippine troops during the annual Balikatan exercise that concluded Friday.

The coast guard will maintain a prolonged presence at the shoal, Tarriela said in comments reported Saturday by the state-run Philippine News Agency.

The BRP Teresa Magbanua, one of the coast guard’s patrol vessels, deployed to the shoal on April 15 after intelligence that China was conducting unauthorized marine research there, Tarriela said.

Two other coast guard vessels, the BRP Cabra and BRP Malabrigo, also rotate to the shoal, he said.

“We are extensively monitoring the movement of the Chinese research vessels,” he said. “They have three — the mother boat, which is the biggest and stationed in Sabina Shoal, and two smaller ones.”

The two research vessels, Tarriela said, circle the shoal and deploy service boats that ferry instruments and divers to the seabed.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, asked Monday about the alleged island-building, said the Philippines has repeatedly spread rumors, deliberately vilified China and tried to mislead the international community.

“None of those attempts will succeed. China urges the Philippines to stop making irresponsible remarks, face up to the facts and return to the right track of properly handling maritime disputes through negotiation and consultation,” he said, according to a transcript of the regularly scheduled press conference released by the ministry.

Last month, a China coast guard ship with water cannons damaged one of two Philippine coast guard vessels at Scarborough Shoal, also inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but controlled by Beijing.

An escalating number of similar encounters have occurred between the two countries at Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the South China Sea controlled by Manila.

The Chinese vessels at Sabina Shoal have also been spotted at Second Thomas Shoal, Tarriela said, according to the Philippine News Agency.

The Philippines could legally detain the Chinese researchers but is unable to do so due to interference by the Chinese coast guard, he said.

However, the BRP Teresa Magbanua’s deployment is deterring China’s apparent land reclamation efforts, Tarriela said.

“The main objective of our prolonged presence in Sabina Shoal is to prevent the Chinese government in carrying out their illegal action of reclamation and possible reclamation in Sabina Shoal,” he said. “And for 26 days, we have been very successful in doing that.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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