Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Philippines says China is building at disputed shoal

The Philippines accused China on Tuesday of laying concrete blocks on a small group of reefs and rocky outcrops within its territory, the latest escalation in a hostile maritime dispute.

Defence department spokesman Peter Galvez released to the media an aerial photograph of what he said were about 30 blocks on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

"It's unfortunate that they keep on doing activities that do not contribute to our pursuit towards regional peace," Galvez told reporters.

Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin briefed members of parliament about the issue on Tuesday, telling them the concrete blocks were a "prelude to construction", according to Galvez.

Galvez said the photograph was taken from a Philippine navy plane on Saturday, and three Chinese coastguard vessels were also observed there.

AFP could not immediately verify the photograph. When asked for comment, Chinese embassy spokesman Hua Zhang told AFP by email: "I will look into it."

Scarborough Shoal is about 220 kilometres (135 miles) off the main Philippine island of Luzon, within the country's internationally recognised exclusive economic zone.

The outcrop is about 650 kilometres from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to the coasts of the Philippines and other neighbours.

The Philippines and Vietnam have in recent years repeatedly accused China of becoming more aggressive in staking its claims to the disputed waters, which are believed to sit atop vast gas and oil reserves.

The Philippines says China has effectively occupied Scarborough Shoal, home to rich fishing grounds, since last year by stationing vessels there and banning Filipino fishermen.

Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and the rivalries have been a source of tension for decades.

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China, in particular, have become increasingly tense in recent years.

The Philippines angered China in January this year by asking a United Nations tribunal to rule on the validity of the Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea.

China rejects international arbitration, preferring to deal with the issue on a bilateral basis while maintaining it has sole territorial rights.

Legislator Walden Bello, who attended Gazmin's briefing on Tuesday, told AFP Filipino politicians were concerned China could be laying the foundations for a military garrison on Scarborough Shoal.

He said the tactics were similar to when Chinese took control of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in 1995.

"We're worried that this could be the start of the same process of erecting concrete structures and asserting de facto ownership like they also did at Panganiban Reef," Bello said, referring to Mischief Reef by its Filipino name.

In 2002, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted a non-binding "declaration of conduct" for the South China Sea to discourage hostile acts.

All sides agreed then not to use threats or force to assert claims.

They also pledged in the declaration to refrain from inhabiting uninhabited islands or other features in the South China Sea, and to "exercise self-restraint" in conducting activities that would escalate disputes.

But China has since refused to turn it into a legally binding "code of conduct".

In another related issue, the Philippine foreign ministry said President Benigno Aquino called off a planned trip to China for a trade fair this week after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on the trip.

Ministry spokesman Raul Hernandez did not disclose the conditions, saying Chinese foreign ministry officials had "advised" the Philippines not to make them public, but signalled they were centred firmly on the territorial row.

"The president stood firm in the defence of the country's national interest," Hernandez said. - Channel News Asia

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