BEIJING — China has denied it is increasing combat readiness in response to a territorial row with the Philippines over a disputed shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The tense standoff, which erupted last month, centers on Scarborough Shoal, a tiny rocky outcrop in the West Philippine Sea about 230 kilometers (140 miles) from the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.
The dispute began when Philippine authorities detected Chinese ships fishing there. They attempted to arrest the crew, but were blocked by Chinese surveillance vessels that were quickly deployed to the area.
China’s defence ministry denied military units were getting ready for war, despite warnings in state media that China is prepared to fight to end the standoff.
“Reports that the Guangzhou military region, the South China Sea fleet and other units have entered a state of war preparedness are untrue,” the ministry said in a brief statement on its website Friday.
The Guangzhou military region in southern China has responsibility for the area.
It gave no source for the reports, but rumours on the Internet say China has ordered some military units up to level two of its four-level scale of war preparedness, one notch from the top which indicates full readiness.
The two nations have had non-military vessels stationed at the shoal since April 8 in an effort to assert their sovereignty to the area.
China claims virtually all of the West Philippine Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves, as its historical territory, even waters close to the coasts of other Asian countries.
The Philippines says the shoal is part of its territory because it falls within its exclusive economic zone.
On Friday, around 300 protestors demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in the Philippines to denounce “bullying” by Beijing.
A Chinese state-backed newspaper on Saturday accused the Philippines of whipping up nationalism through the protest, but it added military conflict in the West Philippine Sea was possible.
Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea. The rival claims have for decades made the waters one of Asia’s potential military flashpoints.
“Nationalism seems to echo just as strongly wherever you go around the South China Sea [West Philippine Sea]. The Philippines is showing prominent such behaviour,” the Global Times said in an editorial.
“It remains possible that military conflicts will ensue in the South China Sea, and when that happens China will certainly take firm action,” it added.
Chinese authorities also this week ordered tour operators to suspend trips to the Philippines.