The Philippines on Thursday “strongly” protested China’s creation of two districts in the disputed South China Sea, saying Beijing’s move violated the Southeast Asian nation’s territorial sovereignty.
Manila had been protesting Beijing’s self-declared Sansha City “and the extent of its administrative jurisdiction” since 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement. It marked the latest in a series of recent protests by the foreign office over Chinese actions in the sea.
“The Philippine government strongly protests the establishment of the so-called districts of ‘Nansha’ and ‘Xisha,’” it said.
On Thursday the Philippines also rejected the designation of Kagitingan Reef within the administrative center for the so-called “Nansha district.” The Kagitingan Reef is within the Kalayaan Island Group and, Philippine officials said, is an integral part of Philippine territory.
Manila “does not recognize Sansha, nor its constituent units, nor any subsequent acts emanating from them,” the department said.
“The Philippines also objects to and does not recognize the Chinese names given to some features in the Kalayaan Island Group,” the statement read.
“The establishment and supposed extent of jurisdiction of ‘Sansha City’ of which the new two districts are part, violate Philippine territorial sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc, and infringes on Philippine sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea,” the DFA said.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which about U.S. $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of those waters.
Thursday’s statement from the Philippine foreign office came eight days after Manila filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing after Filipino officials said Chinese sailors had pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship. Manila at the same time filed a separate diplomatic note regarding the Chinese move to name the districts.
On Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to a reporter’s question related to the alleged laser-gun incident.
“According to what we know, the Philippine side’s accusation about laser gun-pointing is not true,” he told a daily press conference.
“The Chinese warship was patrolling in relevant waters of China’s Nansha Islands,” he said, using the Chinese name for the contested Spratly Islands. “Its operation was professional and standard, which accords with international law and relevant security rules. China has lodged representations with the Philippine side, asking certain individuals on the Philippine side to respect facts and refrain from issuing groundless remarks.”
Earlier this month, the State Council, China’s top administrative body, approved the creation of two new municipal districts – Nansha District, which is based at Fiery Cross Reef, an artificial island built by China that it said will oversee all of the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters; and Xisha District, based on Woody Island, which will oversee the Paracel Islands.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague sided with the Philippines in its arbitration case against China. The international community, including the United States, hailed that win as historic, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte never enforced the ruling and instead sought closer ties with Beijing.
The DFA statement on Thursday also called on China to “adhere to international law” and impose self-restraint in conducting activities in the South China Sea, which is believed to lie atop vast mineral and oil deposits.
It underscored that the international arbitral tribunal’s ruling had “comprehensively addressed China’s excessive claims and illegal actions in the South China Sea.”
Manila has been protesting the passage of Chinese warships as well as fishing boats near its sea territory. Last year, Duterte held talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping after a Chinese trawler rammed into a Filipino fishing boat, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen adrift at sea.
But Duterte’s government subsequently accepted China’s apology for the incident, with the president saying he had no choice but to do so because he had to consider Beijing’s military might.
The Philippines’ stronger position against China came shortly after Duterte spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump recently. While complete details of the dialogue were not released to the press, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said the two leaders had agreed to maintain the “strong and enduring” ties between the allies.
This week, a resolution filed at the Philippine Senate urged Duterte’s government to “exert legal and diplomatic pressure” against China over its activities in the South China Sea. The resolution called for reparations by China to damage it has caused on Philippine territory in the sea region.
Also this week, the U.S. Navy’s USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser, completed an “innocent passage” maneuver in the disputed waters. It was the U.S. government’s second freedom of navigation operation in the area in just two days.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.