The Philippines says it has spotted dozens of concrete blocks it believes may be the beginning of a Chinese construction project on a disputed group of reefs in the South China Sea.
Manila's Defense Ministry on Tuesday unveiled aerial photos of the 30 blocks lying at the Scarborough Shoal, the scene of tense standoffs between Chinese and Philippine ships in recent months.
A defense spokesperson said he does not know the exact purpose of the structures, but said boats could be anchored to them. He also said they could be used "as a foundation for something." There has been no response from Beijing.
Manila accuses China of effectively occupying the area since last year with its surveillance and fishing vessels. The Philippines is one of several of China's neighbors that accuses it of using bullying tactics in defending its wide-reaching maritime claims.
The Philippines earlier this year took the dispute to the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. This angered Beijing, which prefers to solve the disputes with one-on-one discussions, and rejects international arbitration and multilateral forums.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday said Beijing remains interested in peacefully resolving the maritime disputes, but will insist on discussing the issue individually with each claimant.
"The Chinese government is a responsible government. It is ready to seek solutions through friendship and friendly consultation," he said. "We believe the disputes in the South China Sea are not issues between China and ASEAN and should not affect the broader interests of China-ASEAN relations."
Li made his comments Tuesday at the opening of an annual trade fair in the southern Chinese city of Nanning that highlights relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino had been set to attend the trade forum. But Manila says he called off his trip at the last minute after Beijing demanded concessions related to the disputed territories. Instead, the Philippines sent a lower level trade delegation to the fair.
China has competing territorial claims with four ASEAN nations. The 10-member grouping has made slow progress with China on coming up with a binding Code of Conduct that would govern behavior in the South China Sea, though Chinese officials are set to hold talks on the matter this month.
Negotiating with each rival claimant gives China a significant strategic advantage, since its military is much larger than each of its neighboring nations.