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Philippines Removes Foreign Markers From Disputed South China Sea Reefs

Demonstrators protest against what Manila claims to be Chinese intrusions into Spratly Islands territories claimed by the Philippines front of the Chinese consulate in Makati's financial district of Manila June 8, 2011.

The Philippines navy says it has removed foreign marker posts that were placed on reefs and banks it says are part of its territory in the South China Sea.

Military officials say the unidentified wooden posts were last week removed from Boxall Reef, which is part of the much-disputed Spratly group of islands.

At the end of May, the navy says it recovered some other posts from the Amy Douglas Bank area, which is within waters the Philippines considers to be in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Military spokesman Major Neil Estrella says an investigation continues into where the posts came from. He says the navy recently added more patrol boats and is spending more time keeping watch on the waters of the westernmost part of the country.

“And because of these maritime patrols we were able to locate markers. So we removed these markers.”

Estrella says the navy has stepped up patrols to verify fishermen’s reports of seeing foreign vessels around territory claimed by both the Philippines and China.

Rising tensions

In the South China Sea, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claim all or part of the Spratlys, which are believed to hold vast oil and gas reserves. In recent months, exchanges over the claims have grown more heated, particularly between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines.

The Philippines says in recent weeks it had run-ins with China over several incidents on the South China Sea. One of the strongest allegations was that in March two Chinese patrol boats intimidated an exploration ship in waters within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.

Philippines officials have demanded that China follow the U.N. Convention on Laws of the Sea regarding territorial claims. China, however, says that it has held sovereignty over the South China Sea for centuries.

Philippines authorities have indicated they plan to formally protest the issue to the United Nations.

US reassurance

While China has said it prefers to directly deal with individual countries over the territorial dispute, President Benigno Aquino has asked the United States for help.

During a speech at a renewable energy forum in Manila this week, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas indicated Washington's support on the issue.

“The Philippines and the United States are strategic treaty allies. We are partners. We will continue to consult and work with each other on all issues including the South China Sea and Spratly Islands.”

Angry response

China responded furiously last year after the United States joined several countries at a regional security summit in calling for a multi-lateral approach to resolving South China Sea disputes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also declared that the U.S. has a national interest in maintaining free navigation through the waterway.

Philippines media is reporting China’s Foreign Ministry has reassured the Philippines it would not use force to settle the dispute.