December 22, 2022
MANILA, Philippines — China has been carrying out reclamation at four previously unoccupied features in the Spratly Islands, including two that are claimed by the Philippines, in what “Western officials” said were efforts by Beijing to change the status quo in the South China Sea, according to a Bloomberg report.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday said the Philippines was “seriously concerned” and that the reclamation violated a 2002 agreement between China and Southeast Asian nations not to occupy new features or raise tension in the South China Sea and also the 2016 arbitral award.
The report comes two weeks ahead of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila dismissed the report as “fake news,” citing a Twitter post by the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a research group based in China.
The report on Tuesday night said the fresh reclamations were taking place on Malvar (Eldad) Reef in the northern Spratlys, Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, Sandy Cay, and Panata (Lankiam Cay) Island.
Sandy Cay and Panata Island are claimed by the Philippines, while Julian Felipe Reef is within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Panata is 13 km northeast of Philippine-occupied Loaita Island and 53.3 km from the Chinese-held Zamora (Subi) Reef.
About 450 km to the east of Lankiam Cay is Palawan, the nearest major landmass.
The military’s Western Command said that it had observed a “persistent presence of China militia vessels” in the areas identified in the Bloomberg report.
“As of this time, validation and assessment of all information gathered from those areas are ongoing,” it said in response to a query from the Inquirer.
The report, quoting unidentified Western officials, said “some sandbars and other formations in the area expanded more than 10 times in size in recent years.”
“They warned that Beijing’s latest construction activity indicates an attempt to advance a new status quo, even though it’s too early to know whether China would seek to militarize them,” it said.
The officials said the reclamation is “part of Beijing’s long-running effort to strengthen claims to disputed territory in a region critical to global trade.”
China has built seven artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea and transformed them into military outposts with barracks, radars, and several with airstrips.
The DFA said it took note of the Bloomberg article.
“We are seriously concerned as such activities contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award. We have asked relevant Philippine agencies to verify and validate the contents of this report,” it said.
DFA Spokesperson Tessie Daza told reporters such activities would violate the 2002 agreement between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
The agreement reaffirms the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation and overflight, and the exercise of self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would affect peace and stability in the region.
The nonbinding accord calls on the parties to refrain from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features” in the South China Sea.
The 2016 ruling by the international arbitral tribunal reaffirmed Philippine sovereignty over its EEZ and invalidated China’s historical claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called the Bloomberg report “completely groundless”.
“Not taking action on uninhabited islands and reefs of the South China Sea is a solemn consensus reached by China and Asean countries through actions and declarations by each party,” she said.
“The development of China-Philippines relations currently has good momentum, and the two sides will continue to appropriately handle maritime issues through friendly consultation,” she added.
It’s ‘by Vietnam’
In Manila, the Chinese Embassy referred to SCSPI’s Twitter post which said that of the four reefs mentioned, there were “no signs of land reclamation” on three – Lankiam Cay, Eldad Reef, and Whitsun Reef.
But there “is indeed reclaiming” at Sandy Cay but it was “conducted by Vietnam,” SCSPI said. SCSPI added that it was “ridiculous to blame China” since Sandy Cay has been occupied by the Vietnamese since 1974.
“The reporter of Bloomberg News should do more homework on SCS issue,” it said.
The Inquirer sought comment from the Vietnam Embassy, but it did not immediately respond.
The report included pictures taken by satellite showing a Chinese vessel offloading an amphibious excavator at Eldad Reef in 2014.
New land formations have since appeared above water over the past year, and images showed large holes, debris piles and excavator tracks at a feature that used to be only partly exposed at high tide.
On Panata Island, one feature “had been reinforced with a new perimeter wall over the course of just a couple of months last year.”
Physical changes were observed at Julian Felipe Reef, where Chinese ships have remained since last year despite repeated protests from the Philippines, as well as at Sandy Cay, a small strip of sand bars between Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island and Chinese-held Zamora Reef. Both were “previously submerged features [that] now sit permanently above the high-tide line.”
Marcos trip to Beijing
According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Institute, what Vietnam has occupied was Sand Cay, which is 78 kilometers farther away from Pag-asa.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the President should directly raise the unabated illegal entry by Chinese vessels into the West Philippine Sea during their talks.
“I expect nothing less than a firm assertion of our sovereign and legal rights in the West Philippine Sea,” Hontiveros told reporters.
Mr. Marcos should not enter into any agreement with Xi unless China recognizes the Philippines’ EEZ, she said.
She reminded the President that he had declared in his first State of the Nation Address that he would not allow any foreign entity to occupy “even a square inch” of the country’s territory.
Hontiveros said China should also first comply with the 2016 arbitral ruling if it really wanted to engage in joint oil exploration with the Philippines in the WPS.
“Only then could both parties start to truthfully and faithfully discuss a joint exploration,” she said.