PH to resume reef repairs
MANILA, Philippines—The government on Thursday said it would resume repair and reconstruction works in the disputed South China Sea after halting activities last year over concerns about the effect on an arbitration complaint it filed against China.
The Philippines had called on all countries last October to stop construction work on small islands and reefs in the South China Sea, virtually all of which is claimed by China.
China itself is undertaking massive reclamation works in the area, while Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam have also been making improvements to their facilities.
“We are taking the position that we can proceed with the repair and maintenance,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told diplomats, military officers and foreign journalists at a forum of the Foreign Correspondents Club of the Philippines (Focap) on Thursday.
He said the works, including repairs to an airstrip, did not violate an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea because they would not alter the status quo in the disputed area. The 2002 code was signed by China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
In 2013, the Philippines filed an arbitration case at the United Nations arbitration tribunal at The Hague questioning Beijing’s “nine-dash-line” claims. Del Rosario said the government expects a decision in February next year. China has elected not to participate in the case.
China claims almost the entire sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the area, where about $5 trillion of seaborne trade pass every year.
In the same Focap speech, Del Rosario accused China of seeking to take control of nearly the entire South China Sea with an expansionist agenda dominated by “massive reclamation” works.
Del Rosario said China’s efforts were aimed at undermining the UN arbitration tribunal that is due to rule early next year on the Philippine challenge to its claims to the disputed waters.
“China is accelerating its expansionist agenda and changing the status quo to actualize its nine-dash-line claim and to control nearly the entire South China Sea before… the handing down of a decision of the arbitral tribunal on the Philippine submission,” he told reporters.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the resource-rich sea, even areas approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, based on an old Chinese map with nine dashes outlining its territory.
But the nine dashes are in some places more than 1,000 kilometers from the nearest major Chinese landmass and well within the exclusive economic zones of its neighbors.
Tensions have escalated sharply in recent years as China has moved to increase its presence and assert its authority in the waters.
Del Rosario said those activities were continuing to pick up pace, pointing to what he described as Chinese ships ramming Filipino fishing boats at a shoal close to the Philippine coast in January.
“China also made and continues to make incursions in the West Philippine Sea and undertake massive reclamation activities in the disputed areas,” he said, referring to the Philippine-claimed waters by its local name.
Del Rosario said the reclamation works were taking place on all seven reefs that China occupies in the Spratly Islands, one of the biggest archipelagos in the sea between the Philippines, southern Vietnam and Malaysia.
“The alterations of these features are plainly intended to change the character, status and maritime entitlements of the said features, which prejudice the arbitration and undermine the work of the arbitral tribunal to hear and objectively decide the case,” he said.
China is a signatory to the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that is meant to govern nations’ maritime actions.
But China has refused to participate in the case filed by the Philippines. The tribunal’s ruling will not be legally enforceable and China is widely expected to ignore any verdict against it.
Meanwhile, Del Rosario welcomed the statements made by US senators led by Republican John McCain urging Washington to pay closer attention to developments in the South China Sea and come up with a strategy for the region. AFP and Niña P. Calleja
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