MANILA — With anxiety already high among Southeast Asian nations about a perceived threat of Chinese expansionism, China warned the Philippines on Tuesday that it could face "serious consequences" over a disputed South China Sea island.
The warning followed a weekend confrontation at sea in which Chinese fishing trawlers intercepted a Philippine naval vessel carrying journalists to see Chinese construction on Mischief Reef, 150 miles west of the Philippine island of Palawan.
"What's important is that we can do what we have to do because this is our territory," Philippine army Maj. Gen. Carlos Tenaga said after the encounter. "We were eyeball to eyeball. We did not blink."
It was the first physical confrontation between China and the Philippines since February, when Chinese construction on eight islands in the Spratlys claimed by Manila was discovered.
Mischief Reef, which lies underwater at low tide, and the seven other Chinese-occupied islands are within the Philippines' 200-mile economic zone and are hundreds of miles away from the Chinese mainland.
China and Taiwan claim all of the hundreds of Spratly Islands scattered in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei each claim a number of them. Apart from their strategic location, on shipping lanes between Japan and Europe, the islands are believed to lie atop a vast, rich oil field.
China and Vietnam fought a brief naval war over the islands in 1988, with Vietnam losing six ships to Chinese attacks. But those clashes were believed to be part of the Cold War rivalry that pitted China against the Soviet Union--then Vietnam's primary patron.
Beijing signed a declaration in Manila in 1992 agreeing to resolve ownership claims to the islands peacefully. Talks have been going on sporadically, and without success, on economic development of the islands.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang accused the Philippines of encroaching on Chinese sovereignty by taking journalists to the Mischief Reef area, despite a warning from Beijing that this would "internationalize" the disagreement.
The Philippine move for publicity embarrassed the Chinese, who had claimed they were building only shelters on the Spratlys to protect fishermen: Visiting journalists saw gun emplacements on four clusters of metal buildings put up on Mischief Reef.