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Philippines, China in Standoff as Ships Monitor Island-Building

Tensions are growing in the West Philippine Sea as the Philippines accuses China of constructing an artificial island on Sabina Shoal, a disputed reef. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has deployed ships to monitor the alleged activity.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s office released a statement announcing the deployment on Saturday, May 11th. The statement accuses China of “illegal activities” and “creating an artificial island” through the destruction of coral reefs.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela confirmed “small-scale reclamation” at Sabina Shoal, also known as Escoda Shoal in the Philippines. He pointed to China as the “most probable actor” behind the activity.

The Chinese embassy in Manila has yet to respond to the Philippine accusations, which could further strain relations between the two countries. This comes from the Philippines’ call to expel Chinese diplomats over a leaked phone conversation regarding the maritime dispute.

Longstanding Dispute

China and the Philippines have been locked in a territorial conflict over the West Philippine Sea, a vital waterway carrying an estimated $3 trillion in trade annually. China claims a vast majority of the sea, overlapping with claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

An international tribunal ruled 2016 that China’s expansive claims lacked legal basis. However, China has continued extensive land reclamation projects on disputed islands and constructed military facilities that raise concerns for the United States and regional countries.

Philippine Response

The Philippines has anchored a vessel near Sabina Shoal to monitor the situation. The presence of dozens of Chinese research and naval ships in the area has been flagged as “alarming” by the Philippine Coast Guard.

Tarriela noted the discovery of piles of dead and crushed coral near the Chinese ships, roughly 124 miles from Palawan province. The Coast Guard plans to deploy marine scientists to determine if the coral damage is natural or human-caused.

The Philippines intends to maintain a “prolonged presence” at Sabina Shoal, a strategic location for resupplying Filipino troops stationed on a grounded warship at Second Thomas Shoal, another flashpoint in the ongoing maritime dispute.