(Adds dropped word "boats" to headline)
BEIJING, March 10 China said on Monday that
coast guard ships had driven away two Philippine vessels which
had tried to approach a shoal in the South China Sea in the
latest flare-up of a long-running territorial dispute.
The Chinese ships were patrolling waters around Second
Thomas Shoal, known in China as the Ren'ai reef, when they
spotted the Philippine boats, carrying construction materials
and Philippine flags, which left the area after being warned
off, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.
The incident happened on Sunday, he added.
Qin said that China had repeatedly demanded the Philippines
remove a ship which had been grounded on the shoal in 1999, but
that Manila had cited technical reasons for being unable to do
"This time, the Philippine side has again attempted to start
construction on the reef," he told a daily news briefing. "The
moves infringed China's sovereignty."
China had no choice but to respond to the Philippines'
moves, Qin added.
Manila ran aground an old transport ship on the reef in 1999
to mark its territory, and has stationed marines in abject
conditions on the rusting ship.
China's claims over islands, reefs and atolls in
resource-rich waters off its south coast and to the east of
mainland Southeast Asia have set it directly against Vietnam and
the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay
claim to parts.
The Second Thomas Shoal, a strategic gateway to Reed Bank,
believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, is one of several
possible flashpoints in the South China Sea that could force the
United States to intervene in defence of its Southeast Asian
In 2010, Manila awarded an Anglo-Filipino consortium a
licence to explore for gas on Reed Bank, but drilling stalled in
2012, because of the presence of Chinese ships.
Manila says Reed Bank, about 80 nautical miles west of
Palawan island at the southwestern end of the Philippine
archipelago, is within the country's 200-nautical mile (370 km)
exclusive economic zone.
Beijing says it is part of the Spratlys, a group of 250
uninhabitable islets spread over 165,000 square miles, claimed
entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia,
Brunei and the Philippines.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard)