MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has asked its ambassador to China to return home for consultations, the foreign department said Thursday amid fresh tensions in a seething maritime territorial row.
Ambassador Erlinda Basilio flew back to Manila as the defense department this week accused China of laying 75 concrete blocks on disputed territory in the South China Sea.
“She was asked to come home for consultations, and she will (be in Manila) for the next few days,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters.
Defense officials have expressed concern the Chinese block-laying could be a prelude to building structures at the shoal.
The outcrop is about 650 kilometers from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.
Asked if Manila would lodge a diplomatic protest or undertake other options, Hernandez said: “We are still studying the matter.”
The Philippine foreign ministry earlier said President Benigno Aquino had also called off a planned trip to China on Tuesday for a trade fair after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on the trip.
The concrete blocks have raised concerns in Manila that China could be planning construction in the waters, as it did in Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in another area of the sea, in 1995.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected the Philippine allegations of block-laying on Wednesday, while asserting China’s sovereignty over the shoal.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to the coasts of its neighbors.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and the rivalries have been a source of tension for decades.
The Philippines engaged China in a tense standoff at Scarborough shoal in 2012.
Manila has said the Chinese had effectively taken control of the shoal by stationing vessels there and preventing Filipino fishermen from entering the area.
In January the government asked a United Nations tribunal to rule on the validity of the Chinese claims to most of the sea.
China has rejected the move, but has said it wants to solve the dispute through bilateral negotiations with concerned parties.