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The Philippine government released surveillance images showing Chinese ships spotted near a shoal in the South China Sea. Source: AP

VIENTIANE — The Philippine government on Wednesday released what it says are surveillance pictures of Chinese coast guard ships and barges at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, in an apparent diplomatic gambit to publicise its concerns at a regional summit being attended by China’s premier and Southeast Asian leaders.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte plans to ask Premier Li Keqiang at the summit in the Laotian capital whether the vessels were on another island-making mission on the Scarborough Shoal. China has built seven such islands in the disputed, resource-rich sea, alarming neighbours and rival claimants.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China hadn’t done anything to alter the circumstances in the waters surrounding the shoal.

What I can tell you is that the situation in waters near Huangyan Island remains unchanged and China hasn’t made any new moves,” Hua said in Beijing, using the shoal’s Chinese name. “We should be highly alert against the mischief-making intentions of people who spread such groundless information in such situations.”

Asked how disturbed the Philippines was by the presence of the Chinese ships, Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella told a news conference: “Enough to announce it.”

However, Duterte expressed alarm after a Philippine surveillance plane recently spotted four Chinese coast guard ships, four suspected barges, including one equipped with what appeared to be a crane. The government released the photos with a diagram showing the vessels’ exact locations at the shoal, which the Chinese coast guard seized after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels in 2012.

China claims the entire South China Sea as its own, citing historical reasons. It has rejected a July 12 international arbitration ruling that called its claims illegal. The tribunal ruling also rebuked China for its land reclamation activities.

– AP