MANILA – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) denied a report that a marker with Chinese writings and buoys were spotted near Recto Bank.
"The reported presence of buoys with Chinese markings is inaccurate. Our recent patrols in the reported area revealed that there were no such buoys nor Chinese markers,'' the AFP's Western Command said in a statement.
A sailor earlier told Reuters he was on a fishing boat being used by the navy that discovered the rubber buoys and the floating steel marker at the end of May. The buoys stretched "as far as the eye could see", the sailor said.
He said there was no evidence Chinese ships had placed them near the Recto Bank, which is also claimed by Beijing.
But efforts to remove the buoys were thwarted by the sudden appearance of a Chinese naval patrol vessel, prompting the Philippine boat to flee, the sailor said in an interview in Puerto Princesa, capital of Palawan province, the Philippine military's jumping off point to the disputed South China Sea.
The Reed Bank lies 80-90 nautical miles (148-167 km) west of the Philippines in what Manila regards as its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Western Command said it ''remains vigilant and continues to conduct maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Philippine military strategists have long worried that China wants to occupy the Reed Bank.
One air force general said he suspected the buoys were put there so Chinese fishermen could tether their boats, then if the Philippine navy tried to evict the fishermen, Chinese coastguard ships would appear to protect them.
In 2012, China seized Scarborough shoal, which lies 124 nautical miles (230 km) west of the Philippines, after a three-month standoff with the Philippine navy.
China has since prevented Philippine fishermen from getting close to the rocky outcrop's rich fishing grounds, the Philippine government and fishermen say.
The Philippine navy has previously found markers with Chinese inscriptions around shoals in other parts of the South China Sea that Manila claims.
In 2011, a steel marker the size of a 14-footer container was discovered in Sabina shoal in the Spratlys. A navy boat towed it away while concrete markers found in the same area last July were blown up, naval officials said.
The Philippine government said in March it was suspending exploration at Reed Bank while it pursued international arbitration over its territorial dispute with China at a U.N. tribunal in the Hague.
Manila is seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit waters in its EEZ as allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China has refused to participate in the hearing, which opens on Tuesday. – with Reuters