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China’s reclamation move sparks fears in Philippines

Publication Date : 09-06-2014

 

China disdainfully brushed aside on Friday Philippine government reports of new Chinese land reclamation on reefs in the South China Sea.

In response to reports that Philippine officials, including President Aquino, had expressed concern over Chinese ships moving around Gavin Reefs (Gaven Reefs) and Calderon Reef (Cuarteron Reef) in the West Philippine Sea—part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone (EEZ) recognised under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos)—possibly to reclaim land, the Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing had “indisputable sovereignty” over “Nansha (Spratly) Islands and adjacent waters.”

“Any action by China on any island falls within China’s sovereignty and has nothing to do with the Philippines,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei.

Photographs taken by the Philippine military showing Chinese ships engaged in reclamation off Malvar Reef (Eldad Reef) were published by the Inquirer on Saturday. But the Presidential Palace said the military had not confirmed actual land reclamation at Gavin Reefs and Malvar Reef.

Malvar Reef is located northeast of Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), where China has been discovered to have been reclaiming land that the Philippine government fears could be used to build an airstrip or an offshore military base right in the heart of the Philippines’ EEZ.

Gavin Reefs

President Aquino spoke to reporters on Thursday about the movement of Chinese ships toward Gavin Reefs, possibly to reclaim land.

The President gave no details, but Gavin Reefs—two reefs in the Tizard Bank of the Spratly Islands that are also claimed by Vietnam—are already under Chinese control. (Internet information describes them as having a supply platform and a reef fortress. The supply platform is described as having antiaircraft guns, search radars and radio communications equipment.)

A Palace spokesperson said the information received by the President was that “some ships have been sighted [and they] are capable of transporting reclamation materials.” But the President “has not mentioned if indeed the reclamation has started,” said his deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was monitoring the ship movements and it was considering a diplomatic protest if the land reclamation was confirmed.

Philippine officials said last week that China was reclaiming more land in the South China Sea to bolster its military presence in the disputed waters where its increasing assertion of its territorial claims had brought it into standoffs with its neighbours, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, according to a report by The Associated Press.

The Philippines protested in April after discovering that Chinese dredging ships had reclaimed a large patch of land on Mabini Reef, in the Spratlys, that could be used to build an airstrip or a military outpost far from the Chinese mainland.

China rejected the Philippine protest, saying Mabini Reef was part of its territory.

Aquino bothered

Aquino said he was bothered after seeing surveillance photos of ships capable of reclaiming land in the vicinity of Gavin Reefs and Calderon Reef.

“We are again bothered that there seems to be developments in other areas within the disputed [waters],” he told reporters on Thursday.

Gavin Reefs and Calderon Reef are covered by the arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea challenging China’s claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.

The extensive claim has set China against the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan—all of which claim parts of the South China Sea within their EEZs.

Disputed by the six countries are islands, islets, atolls and reefs believed to be sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves, in a sea that is also crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes where a third of annual global cargo passes.

Status quo agreement

In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) signed an agreement, the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, under which the claimants committed not to change the status quo in the disputed waters.

The Philippines has standing protests against China’s incursions on its territory, including Mabini Reef and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) off the island-province of Palawan and Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales province.

If China’s activities at Gavin Reefs and Calderon Reef are leading to land reclamation, it would be another violation of the 2002 status quo agreement, according to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.

Del Rosario described this development as worrying in the light of new reports of Chinese encroachment on Philippine territory and amid repeated incidents that had increased tensions between China and Vietnam over Beijing’s moving an oil drilling rig to parts of the South China Sea within Hanoi’s EEZ.

 

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