China has stationed up to five ships around a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds, media in the Philippines reported on Wednesday.
In a move that would likely raise tensions in the disputed region, the Philippine Star newspaper said China began deploying ships to Quirino Atoll, also known as Jackson Atoll, after a fishing vessel recently ran aground in the area. It quoted unidentified Filipino fishermen and officials in the area.
Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, the mayor of the Kalayaan region in the Spratly Islands, told the newspaper the ships had been based at the uninhabited atoll for more than a month. "They have many ships there," he said.
The Philippine military said it had received reports about the presence of Chinese ships in the area.
"We are still verifying these reports," spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told Reuters. "We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area. There are also ships around Second Thomas Shoal so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent."
The nearby Second Thomas Shoal is where the Philippine navy has been occupying and reinforcing a rusting ship that it ran aground in 1999 to bolster its claims to the disputed reef.
In 2011, a Chinese warship allegedly fired warning shots at Filipino fishermen near Jackson Atoll.
Tensions on the rise
Another unidentified fisherman was quoted by the Philippines Star as saying Chinese boats chased them away when they tried to enter the area last week.
"These gray and white Chinese ships, around four of them inside the lagoon, prevented us from entering our traditional fishing ground," he said.
Chinese authorities did not immediately respond to faxed requests for comment.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have large deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.
The Philippines is awaiting a ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague on its territorial dispute with China.
Tensions have been building recently, with the United States and others protesting against Beijing's land reclamations on islands and reefs, and the recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracel Islands.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned China on Tuesday against what he called "aggressive" actions in the region, saying there would be "specific consequences" to militarization of the South China Sea.
Beijing, for its part, has been angered by "freedom of navigation" air and sea patrols the United States has conducted near the islands it claims in the South China Sea and says it needs military facilities for its self defense.