About 50 Filipinos, mostly students, are camping on a remote Philippine island in the disputed South China Sea over Beijing’s claims on the islands, officials said Sunday. The group reportedly planned to stay on the island till Monday — a move that could trigger strong reaction from China.

The Filipino group, led by a former naval commander, reached Pagasa in the Spratly archipelago on Saturday, describing the journey as a "patriotic" voyage and a symbolic act of defiance against China. The protesters reportedly aim to highlight China’s creeping invasion of the Philippine exclusive economic zone, Eugenio Bito-onon, the island's mayor, said, according to Reuters.

The move was opposed by the government, but Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma reportedly said Sunday it understood the group’s intentions and would assist the protesters if necessary. 

“We recognize the patriotism of these youths that made them venture out,” he reportedly said.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, believed to be rich in resources, dismissing rival claims by neighbors, including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Tensions in the region escalated last year, after China began its aggressive island-building and naval patrols in the area, which has also seen the U.S. and Australia undertaking freedom of navigation operations.