MANILA— The Philippines says China is developing land on a disputed reef in the hotly contested Spratly Islands of the South China Sea.
A spokesman for the Department of National Defense confirmed that early this year, military surveillance found China involved in “earth-moving activities in the area” of Johnson South Reef. The reef, called Chigua by China and Mabini by the Philippines, is more than 300 kilometers west of Palawan province in the Philippines.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said it lodged a protest with China early last month over its “reclamation” of Johnson South Reef. In a statement the ministry said China rejected the protest and President Benigno Aquino raised the issue at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Burma over the weekend.
Following the summit, officials this week released news of the building activities.
During a regular news briefing Wednesday Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda emphasized that China is a signatory to a non-binding declaration on keeping peace in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
“I would like to believe that China would like to be a member of the international community in good standing. However, it appears they are doing things, which we find objectionable,” he said.
A Foreign Affairs official earlier told Reuters news agency that China was preparing to build an airstrip at Johnson South. However, National Defense Spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said the military cannot confirm what is being built. He said sand and rocks were being moved from the surrounding area to augment the reef.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday she could not confirm what construction, if any, was being done there. “I can tell you the reef is Chinese territory and Chinese construction on Chinese territory is completely within China’s jurisdiction,” she said.
Officials say the Chinese activities at the reef go against the spirit of the South China Sea “code of conduct.”
But Manila-based security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said China has been controlling the reef for years, and even has an old structure that is still there. “Now if claimants raise issue about that activity, then China can have an alibi that they are just improving their existing facilities,” Banlaoi stated.
Banlaoi points out that other claimants to the reefs in the region could do the same in the parts they control.
Banlaoi also says that just one of the Spratly outcroppings can handle an airstrip and that is at Swallow Reef, which is controlled by Malaysia. He said if China were to erect an airstrip at Johnson South, it would have to do what Malaysia did, which was put up foundations on the strongest parts of the reef. This would destroy the ecological balance of Johnson South and possibly violate some international environmental laws.
The Philippines has claims in the South China Sea including many of the Spratly islands. China says it has indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea, which is believed to have major oil and gas reserves, is rich with marine life and has heavily travelled shipping lanes.