MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines summoned China's ambassador in Manila on Wednesday for talks over a disputed area in the South China Sea after two large Chinese surveillance ships blocked a Philippine Navy vessel from arresting Chinese fishermen in the area.
The Philippines and China are contesting sovereignty over a small group of rock formations known as Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea, about 124 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon, near a former U.S. navy base in Subic Bay.
A mosaic of conflicting claims over islands and other formations in the South China Sea have set China against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. Some of those disputes have drawn the United States to press China over the sovereignty claims in the resource-rich maritime area.
Tension has risen in the past two years over worries China is becoming more assertive in its claims to the seas, believed to be rich in oil and gas and straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East.
The stakes have risen further in the past year since the United States refocused military attention on Asia, strengthening ties with the Philippines and Australia.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media said a Chinese cruise ship called the "Scent of Princess Coconut" had completed a trial voyage to the Paracel Islands, a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs that both Vietnam and China claim.
The proposal to open the Paracels, known as the Xisha islands in Chinese, to tourism and the stand-off over the Scarborough shoal off the Philippines are likely to add to long-standing friction.
On Sunday, a Philippines Navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough shoal.
The Philippines' largest warship, a U.S. Hamilton-class cutter, rushed to the area to check on the Chinese presence, the first serious friction this year.
In March 2011, Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine research vessel, prompting Manila to scramble planes and ships to the dispute Reed Bank area.
That incident prompted Manila to seek closer ties with the United States. The U.S. and Philippine navies will stage war games around the Reed Bank later this month.
On Wednesday, Philippines foreign ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez said Manila was seeking a diplomatic solution after Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario called in China's ambassador Ma Keqing for discussions.
"The Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal is an integral part of Philippine territory and the Philippine Navy is enforcing Philippine laws on the shoal, which is within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
On Tuesday, a Philippine Navy team inspected the Chinese fishing boats and found illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks in one of the vessels.
Two Chinese surveillance ships soon arrived and placed themselves between the Philippine Navy ship and the fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen.
The foreign ministry statement said the situation "remained unchanged as of this morning".
At a regional summit in Phnom Penh earlier this month, the Philippines pressed for a regional summit to discuss the disputes. China however has rejected "internationalization", preferring to discuss them bilaterally or with the ASEAN regional grouping.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)