MANILA, September 5, 2013 (AFP) – The Philippines has called home its ambassador to China for consultations, the foreign department said Thursday amid fresh tensions in a long-running maritime territorial dispute.
Foreign department spokesman Raul Hernandez announced ambassador Erlinda Basilio’s trip after the defense department accused China of laying 75 concrete blocks on the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
Defense officials have expressed concern this could be a prelude to building structures at the shoal, 220 kilometers (135 miles) off the main Philippine island of Luzon and within the Philippines’ internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.
“She was asked to come home for consultations and will return to Beijing in a few days,” Hernandez told AFP.
Speaking to reporters earlier Thursday, he would not say if Basilio was called home solely because of the alleged Chinese block-laying.
The Philippine foreign ministry earlier said President Benigno Aquino had called off a planned trip to China on Tuesday for a trade fair after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on his visit.
Hernandez said Manila was still studying whether to lodge a diplomatic protest or consider other options regarding the alleged Chinese activity at the shoal.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected the Philippine allegations on Wednesday, while asserting his country’s sovereignty over the shoal.
The outcrop is about 650 kilometers from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass, but China claims most of the South China Sea including waters near the coasts of its neighbors.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to parts of the 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 it 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, saying it wants to solve the dispute through bilateral negotiations with concerned parties.