MANILA, Philippines – Concrete blocks, believed to have been laid out by the Chinese, were spotted in the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) off Zambales which appears to be “a prelude to construction,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was quoted as saying in a radio report Tuesday.
The defense chief made the disclosure in a budget hearing at the House of Representatives where he said: “Concrete blocks were sighted (in Panatag) which is a prelude to construction.” He added that three coast guard ships were also seen last August 31.
A reef located 124 nautical miles from Zambales, Panatag Shoal, once named as Bajo de Masinloc, is being disputed by China and Philippines. Chinese presence continues in the area with its surveillance and fishing vessels.
Prior the hearing, Gazmin told reporters at Camp Aguinaldo that new violations were made by China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but refused to give details, preferring to detail his revelation to the House.
Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez told reporters that more or less 30 concrete blocks were spotted in the northern portion of the shoal, estimated at two feet by two feet.
The concrete blocks were spotted over the weekend by a Navy plane patrolling the area.
He said the Department of Foreign Affairs was informed for appropriate action.
A military source confirmed the presence of concrete blocks and said the scenario appeared to be heading towards the same situation with Mischief Reef or Panganiban Reef near Ayungin Shoal, which is located 70 nautical miles from Palawan.
Structures built by China in the reef were sighted in 1995.
The Chinese reportedly built structures initially to provide shelter for fishermen, but were later transformed into a military garrison.
The Philippines had sought arbitration as provided under the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea to pursue its claims over the West Philippine Sea. It filed a diplomatic protest as Chinese ships continued to come and go into the resource-rich areas of Panatag and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), which were both within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
China claims nearly the entire sea and had been showcasing its aggressive behavior there, but the Philippines and other neighboring countries are claiming parts within their EEZ.
Only last week, President Benigno Aquino III canceled a scheduled visit to a trade fair in China after Beijing reportedly withdrew its invitation.
On Monday, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said that China relayed conditions for Aquino to attend the China-Asean Expo in Nanning. He did not give details of the conditions but said these were “absolutely inimical to our national interest.”
Reports said however, that China wanted Manila to withdraw its arbitration case over the West Philippine Sea.