It’s none of your business.
That was China’s response to the Philippines’ report of the discovery of further Chinese land reclamation on reefs in the West Philippine Sea.
In a press conference in Beijing on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei insisted that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands, including parts of the archipelago within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) known to Filipinos as West Philippine Sea.
“China exercises indisputable sovereignty on the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and the adjacent waters,” Hong said, according to a post on the foreign ministry website.
“Any action taken by China on any island falls within China’s sovereignty and has nothing to do with the Philippines,” he said.
But Malacañang has turned down suggestions of a Vietnam-like response to China’s activities on Gavin Reefs (Gaven Reefs) and Malvar Reef (Eldad Reef).
Vietnam has sent dozens of civilian ships to stop the operation of a deepwater oil drilling rig that China moved near Hanoi-claimed Paracel Islands in the East Sea on May 1.
The East Sea is part of the South China Sea within Vietnam’s 370-km Exclusive Economic Zone where Vietnamese and Chinese ships are now locked in a weekslong standoff over the oil rig.
Vietnam has reported rammings of its ships and accused China of sinking one of its fishing boats on May 26.
Hong said Chinese ships were defending China’s territory.
Philippine officials earlier this week expressed concern over new Chinese movements in territories within the Philippines’ EEZ, including suspected land reclamation at Gavin Reefs and Calderon Reef (Cuarteron Reef) and, most recently, confirmed sightings of reclamation on Malvar Reef.
Malvar Reef is located northeast of Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), where China has been discovered to have been reclaiming land that the Philippine government fears could be used to build an airstrip or an offshore military base.
President Aquino spoke to reporters on Thursday about Chinese ships moving toward Gavin Reefs, possibly to reclaim land.
Mr. Aquino gave no details, but Gavin Reefs, two reefs in the Tizard Bank of the Spratly Islands that is also claimed by Vietnam, are already under Chinese control. Internet information describes them as having a supply platform and a reef fortress. The supply platform is described as having antiaircraft guns, search radars and radio communications equipment.
The Gavin Reefs are also known as Burgos Reefs.
Taking diplomatic tack
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Saturday that the Philippines would take no action like Vietnam’s in response to China’s movements at Gavin Reefs and Malvar Reef.
“We will not respond to any provocative action,” Valte said.
Apart from the fact that the Philippines has no ships that can match China’s large armed naval vessels, Valte said the government had taken a diplomatic tack to resolve the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China peacefully.
The Philippines has filed a petition in the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to nullify China’s claim to 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea. The tribunal has ordered China to respond to the Philippine petition by Dec. 15.
Photographs taken by the military showing Chinese ships engaged in reclamation off Malvar Reef were published by the Inquirer on Saturday.
But Valte said the military had not confirmed actual land reclamation at Gavin Reefs and Malvar Reef.
“What has reached the President is [information] that some ships have been sighted [and they] are capable of transporting reclamation materials. But the President has not mentioned if indeed reclamation has started,” Valte said.
She said any damage to corals would be considered in the action to be taken by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
The DFA filed a diplomatic protest against China in April for its actions on Mabini Reef.
China readily rejected the protest, saying Mabini Reef was part of its territory.
Considering new protest
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines would file a fresh protest if the Chinese activities on Gavin and Calderon reefs proved to be land reclamation.
The DFA said it would issue a statement this week after consultations with the Department of National Defense.
The foreign office has yet to issue a statement on China’s land reclamation on Malvar Reef.
In an interview last week, Del Rosario slammed China’s “expansion agenda” in the South China Sea and expressed doubts about Beijing’s commitment to conclude with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) a legally binding code of conduct among claimants to territory in the South China Sea.
Such a code would prevent the competing territorial claims from erupting into armed conflict.
Case in UN
The Philippines is relying on a favorable ruling from the UN arbitral tribunal to resolve its territorial dispute with China.
China has refused to participate in the process, repeatedly reiterating its sovereignty over the South China Sea.
But the tribunal is proceeding with the process and is likely to make a ruling based solely on the Philippine complaint.
Vietnam has said it is considering following the Philippine lead and is looking to consult Manila on bringing legal action against China. With a report from TJ Burgonio