New potential irritant: PH to raise China buildup on Zamora Reef
The Philippines will raise China’s continued construction work at an artificial island built on a reef in the West Philippine Sea in the next meeting between Filipino and Chinese officials, Manila’s envoy to Beijing said on Saturday.
Ambassador Jose Sta. Romana was reacting to a recent report by Simularity, a US-based research company that analyzes satellite data, that there had been “significant construction activity” on the island that was built by the Chinese on top of Zamora (Subi) Reef.
Zamora is just 26 kilometers southwest of Pag-asa, the biggest island occupied by the Philippines that is within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Sta. Romana said during Saturday’s Laging Handa briefing that the country had long protested China’s artificial island that the Chinese built with land reclaimed from the reef.
He said the Department of Foreign Affairs was studying the matter and would decide based on that.
“There will be discussions, diplomatic discussions, that are being planned to discuss these issues of concern and we hope to bring this up as one of the issues with China,” he said.
Simularity said in a March 24 report that it had monitored “mostly land-related reshaping and reconfiguration” from Nov. 6, 2020 to March 7.
“The volume of change is significant and may indicate the early phase of major construction on Subi Reef,” it said.
In 2017, after China had constructed about seven artificial islands in the disputed waters, then Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, signed an agreement to maintain the status quo in the South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the agreement prohibited the construction of new structures and only allowed improvement of existing facilities.
In lieu of a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed in 2002 a “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which required claimants to parts or the whole of the strategic waterway to maintain the status quo.
China, however, reclaimed land and built artificial islands on reefs in the Spratlys chain, including some within the Philippine EEZ.
The construction works at Zamora Reef could add a fresh irritant to the maritime relations between two countries after Manila filed a diplomatic protest last week against the presence of around 200 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, also within the country’s EEZ, and demanded their immediate withdrawal.
The Chinese ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilian, met with President Duterte and explained that these were Chinese fishing boats that sought shelter at the reef due to bad weather. About 180 of them were still at the reef as of last Monday.
Sta. Romana said the Philippines must be vigilant about the Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe and monitor the area to see if there was any movement after Beijing said the ships were staying there only temporarily.
But he also said that while the Chinese vessels were a cause for concern, there was no reason for the country to panic because they could resolve the matter with an “abundance of diplomacy.”
“Vigilance is the price of sovereignty and that’s why surveillance and monitoring are important,” he said.
The Philippine military and the country’s allies believe the ships belong to China’s maritime militia, and their presence undermined the country’s sovereign rights in its EEZ.
France airs concern, too
The ambassador of France, Michèle Boccoz, on Saturday was the latest diplomat to support the Philippines on this issue.
Boccoz included a German flag and a French flag in a Twitter post where she expressed concern over the presence of Chinese militia vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef, joining the number of foreign envoys who sounded the alarm on Twitter.
Officials and diplomats from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Japan had also expressed concern about the Chinese vessels that had swarmed the reef.
British Foreign Minister Nigel Adams shared London’s “concerns” on developments in the South China Sea, including “actions which raise tensions there.”
Canada’s ambassador, Peter MacArthur, said on Twitter on Thursday that his country “opposes recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including off the coast of the Philippines, that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order.”
Steven Robinson, the Australian envoy to Manila, said his country “remain[s] concerned about destabilizing actions that could provoke escalation” in South China Sea.
Luc Véron, the European Union ambassador to the Philippines, also in a tweet, said the European Union stood by the rules-based order and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Veron’s tweet quoted Josep Borrell Fontelles, representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who said: “We cannot allow countries to unilaterally undermine international law and maritime security in the #SouthChinaSea, thereby representing a serious threat to the peaceful development of the region.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila had dismissed the concerns of the other countries, saying they were not parties to the South China Sea dispute. It said that Beijing’s policy was to settle its disputes with other countries in bilateral negotiations. —WITH REPORTS FROM NIKKA G. VALENZUELA AND INQUIRER RESEARCH
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