MANILA – Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged Wednesday that the military canceled construction of structures in a disputed area of the South China Sea after China complained about it.
Lorenzana said President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a stop to the construction of nipa huts on a sandbar near the Philippine-controlled Thitu Island in the Spratly chain after being briefed on an agreement with China.
“It was explained to him (Duterte) by the foreign affairs secretary that we have an agreement not to occupy new features,” Lorenzana told reporters in Manila.
Lorenzana said the Philippine military had begun to build structures made of nipa (coconut palm leaves) and bamboo on the sandbar around August, supposedly as shelters for fishermen.
But when Chinese ships spotted the building activity, China lodged a complaint through diplomatic channels to Manila.
“They (China) are correct in saying that it is a new feature. So, since we agreed that no one will occupy new features, we shouldn’t have occupied that,” Lorenzana said.
According to the defense chief, the sandbar is located about 2.5 nautical miles from Thitu, an island known locally as Pagasa, which forms part of the island chain where China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
The sandbar’s close proximity to Thitu, which currently has a population of about 200, places it well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Duterte has sought closer ties with China since taking office last year, in clear contrast to a more adversarial approach taken by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who took China to an international arbitration court in 2013 to settle the territorial dispute.
Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in July last year by invalidating China’s claims in the South China Sea, Duterte has chosen to set aside the ruling to cultivate closer ties to its giant neighbor.
That has led to the lifting of import restrictions previously imposed by China on Philippine products because of territorial disputes, and to pledges of billions of dollars in loans and grants.