China 'takes over' Philippine-controlled atoll in South China Sea

The traditional Philippine fishing ground lies between the Philippine-occupied Lawak Island and the Chinese-occupied Panganiban Reef.

China has taken over a disputed Philippine atoll in the South China Sea and stationed up to five ships around the fishing ground, local media reported.

The Quirino or Jackson Atoll, some 140 nautical miles west of the Philippines' Palawan Island, is now effectively in Chinese control, the PhilStar newspaper reported, citing sources.

The atoll has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen from Palawan, Southern Luzon, Western Visayas and even Manila, the report said.

The atoll, which is part of the lagoon chain Philippine fishermen call Jackson Five, is between the Philippine-occupied Lawak Island and the Chinese-occupied Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.

The report said fishermen were chased away from the area by Chinese boats. "These gray and white Chinese ships, around four of them inside the lagoon, prevented us from entering our traditional fishing ground," fishermen from Mindoro Occidental said, according to the daily.

The Philippines military confirmed they got reports about the presence of Chinese ships in the area, Reuters said.

"We are still verifying these reports ... We know there are Chinese ships moving around the Spratly area. There are also ships around Second Thomas Shoal so we want to make sure if the presence is permanent," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told the agency.

The Chinese vessels have been at the atoll for more than a month, PhilStar reported, citing the mayor of nearby Kalayaan in the Spratly Islands.

China and the Philippines are waging a legal battle over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The dispute is now before an arbitration court in The Hague.

In February, Chinese vessels confronted Philippine Navy's logistic ship BRP Laguna near Hasa-Hasa Shoal, another Filipino fishing ground.

Complex web of claims

In 2012, China and the Philippines faced off against each other in a tense maritime stand-off over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which lies 100 km from the cost of Philippines and 500 km away from the cost of China's southern Hainan.

The Chinese then took control of the Shoal and forced the Philippines to release Chinese poachers who had been arrested from the area. The Chinese never left the shoal since then.

China had angered Vietnam and the Philippines in 2012 when it created Sansha city, making it the administrative headquarters for the Paracels.

Again that year, Vietnam alleged China sabotaged its exploration operations, setting off massive anti-China protests in the country.

China lays claim to the whole of the South China Sea , saying the Paracel and Spratly island chains are integral part of the empire from ages.

Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei also have claims to a clutch of islands, shoals, rocky outcrops, atolls and sandbanks in the sprawling south China sea, making it a theatre of tense maritime dispute.

The US, which has geopolitical interests in the region, has criticised the land reclamation, construction and militarisation activities undertaken by China in these islands.

Bid for military domination

The South China Sea dispute came to the fore in recent weeks with China deploying missile batteries and fighter jets to the Paracel island chain and the US holding a summit of Asean leaders in a move to brace up against the Chinese dominance in the region.

China's recent deployment of missiles and a high frequency radar system in the disputed waters are part of its plans to militarily dominate East Asia, US Pacific Command head Admiral Harry Harris said last week.

The US too has US military facilities in Southeast Asia -- Philippines and Thailand. It also has stationed its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic warfare platforms in Malaysia and Singapore.