- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

China has reportedly taken possession of another piece of land in the hotly contested Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea.

According to the Philippine Star, China has been stationing ships in waters used by Philippine fishermen in the area known as Jackson, or the Quirino atoll. The ships are reportedly barring fishermen from entering the area.

Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of the nearby Kalayaan island group, told the Star the ships have been docked in the area for about a month, International Business Times reported.

The Philippines government is still working to verify the report with “concerned agencies,” foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told the Times.

The atoll — coral reefs that form a lagoon within a larger body of water — is close to the Philippine-occupied Lawak island and Mischief Reef, which China has occupied since the 1990s to protest from the Philippines.

Over the past two years, China has stepped up its occupation of the islands in the South China Sea, arguing the waters are their territory.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, which is a vital fishing and trade port for southeastern Asia.

China has also been working to build up its own man-made islands in the region to house its military aircraft.

U.S. President Obama has called for China to stop the land grabs, and the U.S. Navy has pledged to continue sending warships to the area to challenge China’s authority in so-called freedom of navigation operations.

The report of China’s latest occupation in the South China Sea comes as Admiral Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific command announced Wednesday that the U.S., India and Japan will conduct naval drills later this year in waters north of the Philippines.

“By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia, the United States and so many other like-minded nations can aspire to patrol together anywhere international law allows,” Adm. Harris said, adding that no nation should perceive the patrols as a threat, Bloomberg reported.

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