Philippines defending territory, not seeking trouble in South China Sea - president

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen on Manila visit
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By Neil Jerome Morales and Enrico Dela Cruz

MANILA (Reuters) -The Philippines will put up a strong defence of its territory and the rights of its fishers and is not looking for trouble, its president said on Friday, as a row simmers with China over access to a strategic South China Sea shoal.

The Philippine coastguard this week said it had cut a 300 metre (980 feet) floating barrier installed by China that blocked access to the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal, an area Beijing has controlled for over a decade.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, in his first remarks over the latest flare up, said the Philippines was upholding its rights to fish in its exclusive economic zone.

"What we will do is to continue defending the Philippines, the maritime territory of the Philippines, the rights of our fishermen to catch fish in areas where they are doing it for hundreds of years already," Marcos told reporters.

The Chinese coastguard has disputed the Philippine version of the events, while the United States has weighed in behind ally Manila, with a senior defence official calling its move a "bold step" and underlining its treaty obligations to defend its former colony.

Marcos added: "Many of these are operational issues and that I really cannot talk about.

"But in terms of taking down the barrier, I don't see what else we could do."

Ties between the Philippines and China have deteriorated of late, in large part due to overtures from Marcos to deepen defence ties with Washington, including offering expanded access to its troops, ostensibly training and humanitarian purposes.

"The president is really sincere with his commitment that we're not going to surrender an inch of our territory to any foreign power," coastguard spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela told a press conference.

China, which says Scarborough Shoal is its territory, has chided the United States for what it calls provocations in the region.

Since cutting the floating barrier, the Philippines has observed less Chinese presence in the shoal, Tarriela said.

There were three Chinese coastguard vessels and one maritime militia ship seen from an inspection flight on Thursday, versus seven Chinese vessels last week, Tarriela said.

There were two Filipino vessels fishing in the shoal, but it remains a struggle to enter the lagoon, he added.

(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty and Mark Potter)