Philippine soldiers stationed at Thitu island. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

After Philippine lawmaker Gary Alejeno released photo evidence of Chinese coast guard, navy and fishing vessels near a Philippine occupied island in the South China Sea last week, satellite photos independently verified that nine fishing ships were joined by two naval/law enforcement vessels in the area.

Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio described the movements as an “invasion of Philippine territory,” adding that the incident was “highly suspicious and threatening.”

In response, President Duterte denied any provocation on the part of China, stressing “we were not invaded.”

“It’s not true. They are just there, but they are not claiming anything,” the president was quoted as saying.

He further implied that the Philippines shouldn’t respond either way, asking: “Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?”

Putting aside Duterte’s downplaying of the incident, could this be signaling the most significant development since China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012?

Even if China is just prodding the Philippines to see how they will respond, they certainly didn’t get a response that would deter further action.

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