Philippine President Benigno Aquino said on Wednesday the concrete blocks found on a disputed shoal in the South China Sea are "very old", backtracking on Manila's earlier accusation that China was building new structures in the area.
In an embarrassing twist after foreign affairs and defense officials had accused China of preparing to build new structures on Scarborough Shoal, a group of rocks about 120 nautical miles off the coast of the main island of Luzon, Aquino said the blocks found within the shoal "are not a new phenomenon" and "some of them have barnacles attached to them."
Friction over the South China Sea, one of the world's most important sea lanes, has surged as China uses its growing naval might to assert a vast claim over the oil-and-gas rich area more forcefully, raising fears of a military clash between it and other countries that border the area.
The Philippines is also fighting an unprecedented arbitration case under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea against China's claims and has ignored growing pressure from Beijing to scrap the action. Any result will be unenforceable, legal experts say, but will carry considerable moral and political weight.
Aquino also said he does not share some analysts' views the Philippines has lost control over the shoal, saying local fishermen can still freely go there.
"We are not allowed to go to Scarborough Shoal seems to be an oxymoron...there's no rule that says we can't go there," the president told foreign correspondents in Manila, insisting the disputed area is within the country's exclusive economic zone.
Last month, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told a congressional hearing that China had violated a non-binding code by preparing to build new structures on Scarborough, showing lawmakers surveillance photos of the rocks.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told Reuters in an earlier interview the government will file a diplomatic protest against China, saying Beijing was moving to occupy the shoal.
China denied the accusation and accused the Philippines of deliberately stirring up trouble over disputed waters in South China Sea, insisting Scarborough is Beijing's "intrinsic territory".