China on Wednesday denied reports of beginning preparatory work from this year for an environmental monitoring station on disputed Scarborough Shoal in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
"According to the relevant bodies in China, the reports you mention that touch upon building environmental monitoring stations on Scarborough Shoal are mistaken, these things are not true," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a daily news briefing.
"With regards to Scarborough Shoal, China's position is consistent and clear. We place great importance on China-Philippines relations," she added.
Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, earlier this month, said China had planned to start preparatory work in 2017 to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal.
China has given the name of Sansha City to an administrative base for the South China Sea islands and reefs it controls.
"China places great importance on the preservation of the South China Sea's ocean ecology, this is certain," Chunying said.
Xiao Jie's comments about the plans as quoted by the state-backed Hainan Daily had been amended to remove mention of the shoal in the paper's online version when checked by Reuters on Wednesday.
In 2012, China seized the shoal, which is northeast of the Spratly islands, and denied access to Philippine fishermen. However, after President Rodrigo Duterte visited China in 2016, it allowed them to return to the traditional fishing area.
The Philippines also formally asked China's embassy in Manila to explain news reports about building plans for Scarborough Shoal.
"We have sought clarification from China on reported plans on Scarborough Shoal," Charles Jose, foreign ministry spokesman, said in a text message sent to news organisations.
Later in a radio interview, Jose said it is important for the Philippines to strengthen its defence and maritime domain awareness capabilities. He said that the Philippines should also cooperate with its allies and regional partners who share the country's position in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. This would surely resort to peaceful settlement of disputes and adherence to rule of law.
When he was questioned about the Philippines deployment of warships to Scarborough Shoal in order to assert its claims on the area, he said: "We should maintain the civilian nature so as not to escalate tensions."