Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin accused China of preparing to build a structure on an uninhabited piece of land claimed by both countries in violation of a regional agreement.
The Philippine armed forces saw three Chinese coast guard ships and concrete blocks in the Scarborough Shoal as of Aug. 31, Gazmin told a congressional hearing in Manila today. The move contravenes a 2002 declaration between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to refrain from occupying land in the South China Sea, he said.
“First rocks, then a pile-driver, then a foundation,” Gazmin told reporters after his testimony. “When you get back again, if you don’t survey, there will be a garrison.”
The accusation adds to tensions days after President Benigno Aquino rejected conditions China set for him to attend a trade fair. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, lacks the military force to deter China from controlling disputed waters that may contain oil and gas reserves, and has asked the United Nations to rule on disputes.
“The important thing is we put men there, so this can be prevented,” Gazmin told reporters. “We don’t have the capability to do that at the moment.”
Asked about Gazmin’s remarks, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing today he had no information about the matter.
China has accused the Philippines of illegally occupying Ayungin Shoal, where Filipino troops have been stationed after a naval ship ran aground in 1999. The Philippines and Vietnam reject China’s map of the sea, first published in the 1940s, as a basis for joint exploration of oil and gas.
Moves by China to build a structure on the shoal contrast with a softer tone taken on the territorial disputes since President Xi Jinping took power in March, according to Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Any structure would likely be a shelter for fishermen or an observation station rather than a military facility due to its remote location, he said.
“It wants to have a small concrete structure installed there just to let the world know it’s under Chinese control, it’s in Chinese hands,” Li said. The Philippines is unlikely to risk using force to halt any construction because it would give China an excuse to take other disputed land features under Filipino control in the South China Sea, he said.
The non-binding 2002 Asean-China agreement calls on parties to peacefully solve disputes and refrain from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features” in the South China Sea. China and Asean agreed to start talks this month on a legally binding code of conduct for the waters.
The Philippines asked the UN in January to rule on its maritime disputes with China, a move that leaders in Beijing oppose. China had demanded the Philippines withdraw its arbitration request for Aquino’s planned visit this week to go ahead, the Associated Press reported yesterday, citing two Philippine officials it didn’t identify.
China’s foreign ministry on Aug. 29 urged the Philippines to work with China “to restore healthy and stable development of bilateral ties,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“China has always treasured friendship with the Philippines,” the ministry said, according to Xinhua.
Chinese ships have restricted access to the Scarborough Shoal since a standoff last year with vessels from the Philippines. The shoal is about three times closer to the Philippines than China, Aquino’s government said in an arbitration note.
The Philippines may give the U.S. access to military bases, including Subic Bay in Zambales province north of the capital, Gazmin said on Aug. 30 during a briefing in Manila with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. U.S. naval forces occupied Subic Bay before they were forced to leave after the Philippine Senate ended their lease contracts in 1991.
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