Officials in the Philippines say they spotted several Chinese coast guard ships near a disputed atoll in the South China Sea as recently as two weeks ago, sparking fears that China may try and take control of it.
Eugenio Bito-onon, who heads the Philippines-claimed region, says China sent as many as seven ships near Jackson Atoll in the Spratlys.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry said the vessels were not in the area on Wednesday.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry says vessels were sent to disputed South China Sea waters to tow a grounded Philippine ship.
"The Rescue and Salvage Bureau of China's Ministry of Transport recently dispatched the rescue and salvage ships to the Jackson Atoll to tow away the grounded ship and properly handle it," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a press briefing Wednesday.
"During the process of [towing the ship away], China advised the fishing boats in nearby waters to leave in order to ensure navigation safety and operating conditions. After the operation, the Chinese ships have started heading back," he added.
China claims the majority of the South China Sea as its own, and its territorial claims overlap with those of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. In recent years, China has embarked on an ambitious project to construct artificial islands in the remote sea that are capable of supporting an airstrip and housing military equipment.