A naval standoff in the South China Sea is pitting the Philippines against China, and is highlighting how a growing Chinese military presence in the region may create tension in a resource-rich area.

The confrontation over the Scarborough Shoal, called the Panatag Shoal by the Philippines, has led to a tense standoff between the two navies, now in its fourth day.   

China and the Philippines have agreed to resolve the issue through diplomacy, but belligerent comments from a top Chinese military officer are fanning the flames.

If the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty, said Foreign Secretary, Albert Del Rosario, at a news conference, according to the New York Times).

Rosario and the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Ma Keqing, had agreed earlier to pursue a peaceful solution. Nobody will benefit if violence breaks out there, said Filipino President Benigno Aquino III.

The rocky reef features as the most recent flashpoint crisis for the South China Sea. On Sunday, a Philippine Navy surveillance plane caught eight Chinese fishing boats anchored in a lagoon off the contested shoal.

The Philippine navy promptly deployed its largest warship, the frigate Gregorio del Pilar, a former U.S. Coast Guard vessel transferred to the Philiippines, an American ally, last year.

The navy then proceeded to investigate the Chinese vessels on Tuesday, finding large amounts of coral, giant clams, and live sharks, as reported by TIME World.

Del Rosario said that the findings were proof that the Chinese fishermen were engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species.

However, no arrests were made and the armed Filipino navy personnel returned to their ship.

Meanwhile, China - which claims the shoals are under its sovereignty - sent two surveillance ships, which  positioned themselves between the Filipino warship and the Chinese fishermen. They radioed to the Philippine navy that the warship had encroached upon Chinese territory, was harassing Chinese fishermen, and needed to leave immediately.

The Philippine navy officers rejected the order and rebutted with the same argument that the Chinese were in Philippine waters, resulting in the standoff.

A Long-Standing Dispute

The Sino-Filipino conflict over the Scarborough Shoal is another incident in the historical dispute over the South China Sea.

China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan, have all clashed over the islands located in the South China Sea, which would offer them a legitimate maritime claim to the surrounding waters.

The legal framework for the dispute is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, which established guidelines for claims over territorial waters, including exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

A coastal nation has the sole rights for exploiting its EEZs. From the baseline of a territory, EEZs extend 200 nautical miles out. The Scarborough Shoal is located 143 nautical miles from Luzon, a Philippine island.

However, China claims rights to the entire area, including the Scarborough Shoal, calling it the Huangyan Islands.  

The Impatient General

Despite efforts towards a diplomatic resolution, one Chinese general stands out with his hawkish positions.

Major General Luo Yuan warned that the Philippines faced its last chance to resolve territorial disputes, threatening to use force.

The biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defend its territorial integrity, General Luo wrote for the Global Times, one of China's most prominent news publications.

Earlier last month, also in the Global Times, General Luo had suggested that China develop its own national coast guard.

General Luo's commentary appears to show the Chinese military's growing impatience, but it does not necessarily reflect the broader government position.