MANILA – The Philippines accused China of reclaiming land on a reef in disputed islands in the South China Sea, apparently to build an airstrip or an offshore military base, the country’s top diplomat and other officials said Wednesday, only a day after Washington described Beijing’s actions in the region as “provocative.”
If confirmed, the airstrip would be the first built by China on any of the eight reefs and islands it occupies in the Spratly Islands and would mark a significant escalation in tensions involving several nations in the area.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, an area rich in energy deposits and an important passageway traversed each year by $5 trillion worth of ship-borne goods.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the area.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that the Philippines lodged the protest against China last month after surveillance aircraft confirmed, and took pictures of the reclamation and dredging being done by Chinese vessels at the Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, which Manila says violates a regional nonaggression pact.
China replied to the Philippine protest by saying that the reef belonged to it, he said.
Del Rosario said it’s not clear what China would build on the reef, which Manila claims as part of its western province of Palawan, but one possibility is an airstrip. Another official says China could also build an offshore military base.
“We’re not exactly sure what are their intentions there,” del Rosario said.
Another senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue, said China’s reclamation was first detected by air force planes six months ago. Philippine aircraft searching for a missing Malaysian jetliner in March also spotted the continuing reclamation on the submerged Johnson Reef by at least one Chinese ship backed by smaller vessels. The Philippines and Taiwan already have airstrips in the area.
The government estimates that the reclamation has turned the submerged reef and a sandbar into a 30-hectare (74-acre) landmass that transformed the underwater outcrop into an islet, a senior diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue.
Del Rosario said the Philippines raised the reclamation issue along with the deployment of China Coast Guard ships at the Second Thomas Shoal and “harassments of our fishermen” during a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last week in Myanmar.
ASEAN issued a statement expressing concern over recent territorial spats in the South China Sea after the summit attended by Southeast Asian heads of state, but did not explicitly mention China.
China and ASEAN member states signed a nonbinding 2002 declaration urging rival claimant countries to settle their disputes peacefully, refrain from occupying new islands or reefs and launching construction efforts that could raise tensions.
But accusations of repeated violations of the pact have sparked international calls for a legally binding “code of conduct” that could prevent a major armed conflict in the South China Sea.
Tensions in the South China Sea were already high after China moved a large oil rig into an area also claimed by Vietnam. Beijing and Hanoi each accused the other of ramming its ships near the disputed Paracel Islands.
Beijing says the South China Sea issue should be resolved by direct talks between those involved and has bristled at what it sees as unwarranted American interference.
It has also looked askance at the U.S. “rebalancing” back to Asia, especially Washington’s efforts to boost existing military links with Tokyo and Manila.