BEIJING (AP) — China plans to build the first permanent structure on a South China Sea shoal at the heart of a territorial dispute with the Philippines, in a move likely to renew concerns over Beijing’s robust assertions of its claims in the strategically crucial waterbody.

The top official in Sansha City that has administered China’s island claims since 2012 was quoted by the official Hainan Daily newspaper as saying that preparations were underway to build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines.

The preparatory work on the stations and others on five other islands in the strategically vital waterway was among the government’s top priorities for 2017, Sansha Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie was quoted as saying in an interview published in the paper’s Monday edition seen online Friday in Beijing. No other details were. 

Beijing seized tiny, uninhabited Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Taiwan also includes the island within its South China Sea claims that largely overlap with those of China.

The other stations mentioned by Xiao would be situated on features in the Paracel island group that China has controlled since seizing parts of it away from Vietnam in 1974.

China’s construction and land reclamation work in the South China Sea have drawn strong criticism from the U.S. and others, who accuse Beijing of further militarizing the region and altering geography to bolster its claims. China says the seven man-made islands in the disputed Spratly group, which it has equipped with airstrips and military installations, are mainly for civilian purposes and to boost safety for fishing and maritime trade.

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