Philippines Halts Construction Work in South China Sea after Beijing Protests

Felipe Villamor
171108-PH-sandbar-620.jpg Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in Manila answers questions from reporters about a sandbar in the South China Sea, Nov.8, 2017.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a stop to construction work on a sandbar near an island occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea after receiving a complaint from Beijing, the nation’s defense chief said Wednesday.

China complained after the Philippines tried to build makeshift structures three months ago at a sandbar called Sandy Cay, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

The sandbar is about 2.5 nautical miles from Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (the Filipino word for “hope”), an island in the Spratly archipelago that is also known by a Chinese name, Thitu.

Duterte ordered an immediate halt to the construction after Philippine officials explained to him “that we have an agreement not to occupy new features” in the archipelago, Lorenzana said.

The structures, called nipa huts, are often inexpensively built using light materials including bamboo. They were intended to be used as shelters for passing fishermen, officials said, but China objected and sent ships to the area.

“They complained that we were occupying a new feature,” the defense chief said, adding that the Chinese side had invoked an earlier agreement between all claimants to refrain from actions that would spiral out of control.

Apart from the two countries, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have territorial claims to the potentially mineral-rich South China Sea. It is considered a flashpoint through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.

While the Philippines led the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in getting China to agree to begin negotiations to a code of conduct governing actions in the disputed region, Beijing has been expanding its territory quietly, according to defense analysts.

Super dredger

Recently, reports about China possessing a “super dredger” capable of creating small islands have sent ripples of worry across the region.

Lorenzana said defense officials were trying to verify the reports, but said the Philippines would not react to the presence of the Chinese dredger unless “it approaches our territory.”

Duterte has taken conciliatory moves to improve the country’s bilateral relations with China. Last year, Manila moved to appease Beijing after an international arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, which had complained about Beijing’s occupation of a shoal near the western coast of the country.

In August, Duterte strongly dismissed a claim by a congressman that Chinese vessels were spotted near the cay. It was, however, investigated by Manila’s foreign department, which said it received a satisfactory answer from China, though it never made it public.

“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?” Duterte said then.

But Gary Alejano, a member of the House of Representatives, said Wednesday that Chinese ships near the sandbar reportedly were harassing Philippine vessels conducting patrols in the area.

He said the incident happened as early as two weeks ago, contrary to Lorenzana’s claim that there were no activities in the area.

A contingent of at least four Chinese vessels blocked Filipino naval forces that tried to approach the area around Sandy Cay, Alejano said.

“It was a deliberate but aggressive action undertaken by Chinese maritime militia to ward off or limit any Philippine vessel from coming near” the sandbars, he said.

He noted that Pag-asa was the second-largest island in the Spratlys as well as at a “high-tide elevation.”

Sandy Cay is one of three sandbars close to Pag-asa.

“It is then entitled to territorial waters and a 200-NM (nautical mile) EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” Alejano said. “Therefore, the Philippines has all the rights to patrol the territorial waters of Pag-asa Island, which include the three sand bars.”


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