A rusting ship stationed by the Philippine navy in the disputed South China Sea for the last 16 years has been undergoing repairs, renewing tensions between Beijing and Manila, which both claim ownership of the area and have man-made islands nearby.
The Philippine navy has been bringing cement, steel, cabling and welding equipment to the BRP Sierra Madre using fishing boats and other small wooden craft in recent months, Reuters reported on Tuesday, quoting two navy officers who have been inside the vessel.
China was quick to condemn the Philippines for this repair on Wednesday, demanding Manila remove the vessel, which has sat on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999. The Philippines claims the area is part of its exclusive economic zone, but China says the reef belongs to Beijing, which already claims 90 percent of the South China Sea.
China’s Foreign Ministry in a statement said Beijing "reserved the right to take further measures" if "real regional troublemaker" Manila insists of reinforcing the ship, without elaborating on what those measures would be.
Stating that it was "extremely dissatisfied with and resolutely opposed to" the repairs, China's Foreign Ministry accused Manila of being "two faced" as the Philippines had previously promised to remove the ship.
"China's determination to maintain its national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights is resolute. China again urges the Philippines to immediately stop its illegal encroachments and fulfil its promises to remove the ship," the statement said.
Built for the US Navy during World War Two, the BRP Sierra Madre ship was later transferred to the Philippine navy. The vessel was deliberately grounded near the disputed Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea to mark Manila's claim in disputed waters. Some Filipino soldiers were deployed onboard.
The Philippines has responded to China's angry reaction by saying only "minor repairs" are being made to the vessel.
"It behoves the Philippine navy to ensure the ship's habitability and safety," Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the spokesman for the Philippine navy, told Reuters in a written statement.
Consisting of thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is one of the parties most troubled by Beijing’s assertiveness over its claims in the the South and East China Seas.
China has also long been in a dispute with nearby countries Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei over the South China Sea.
The parties’ overlapping claims on maritime transportation, navigation, exclusive economic zones, fishing grounds, undersea bed gas and oil reserves have escalated the problem and China started to build artificial islands last year.
The Pentagon believes that China has added some 2,000 acres (800 hectares) to five outposts in the Spratly Islands, including 1,500 acres since the start of this year, and that Chinese military complexes are now under construction on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys.