China has deployed ships “that can be used for reclamation projects” in two more disputed reefs in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), President Benigno Aquino 3rd said on Thursday.
The President added that he has received reports of “movements” by Chinese ships in the Gavin Reef and Cuarteron Reef in the Kalayaan Group of Islands, internationally known as the Spratlys.
He made the disclosure a day after an international tribunal asked China to respond to a Philippine memorial to respond to a Philippine memorial contesting Beijing’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
The Hague-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea gave China until December 15 to defend its claims, although Chinese officials have long stressed it will not submit to arbitration proceedings.
The President told reporters in Malacañang that the Chinese ships seem to be similar to those involved in land reclamation activities in the Mabini Reef (Johnson) also in Kalayaan.
“We are again bothered that there seems to be developments in other areas within the disputed seas,” he said.
“The pictures I saw were just ships that can be used for reclamation. But what we have are only pictures at this point, unlike in the case of Mabini Reef where there was a geographical feature,” Aquino added.
Last month, the Philippine government accused China of reclaiming land in the Mabini Reef apparently as a first step to building an airstrip there.
The President said China’s actions violated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
He cited the fifth provision of the declaration, which calls on China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to avoid activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the area.
The provision also asks countries to refrain from “action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
The President said the government is considering bringing to the attention of the United Nations the reclamation in the Mabini Reef.
Aquino insisted that arbitration is the peaceful way to settle the maritime disputes between the Philippines and China.
He reiterated that the country dismisses China’s “indisputable sovereignty” in the disputed sea.
According to him, arbitration “will clarify and will lead to a clear determination of the rights and obligations” of the countries involved.
The President acknowledged that it is China’s right to shun the arbitration case but he still urged Beijing to take part in the legal process.
“If [China is] a responsible member of the international community, one would hope they would conform [with]all the treaties, covenants and agreements that they have entered into, not just with us but with so many other countries, especially Unclos [United Nations Covenant on the Law of the Seas] that has so many signatories,” he said.
The South China Sea, a major sea lane, is believed to be rich in gas and mineral resources.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario also on Thursday said China has no desire to conclude a binding Code of Conduct (COC) governing the West Philippine Sea.
“I do not see any desire on China’s part although there has been some modicum of moving the [COC] . . . I’m not very optimistic about whether China is serious in expeditious conclusion because I can see the aggressive provocative act that we are seeing now . . . It’s their way to pursue their expansion agenda,” del Rosario added.
From China’s viewpoint, he said, the expansion agenda cannot move forward when the code is in place because the code “looks forward instead of backward,” which is China’s way of extending its territorial sovereignty based on Beijing’s nine-dash line claim.
The Philippines, according to del Rosaerio, will continue to work “feverishly” with the Asean for implementation of the 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct.
Asean is composed of the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei Darussalam.
The Philippines invited China to join the arbitration proceedings over the territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea on January 22 last year.
A month later, Beijing sent back the Notification of Claim to Manila, rejecting to join the arbitration case.
The Philippines submitted its memorial last March 31.
The region is being claimed in whole by China, and in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei Darussalam.
In Brussels, leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations also on Thursday said they were deeply concerned by tensions in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
The G7 leaders meeting in Brussels warned against any use of force in the area, where the United States has warned Beijing over its increasing territorial assertiveness.
“We are deeply concerned by tensions in the East [China Sea] and South China Sea,” the leaders said in a statement at the end of a first day of talks in the Belgian capital.
“We oppose any unilateral attempt by any party to assert its territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force,” they added.
The statement, which did not mention any country by name, called on all countries to follow international law in resolving competing claims.
Japan nationalized the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus, in 2012, setting off a tense confrontation with Beijing.
China is also locked in territorial disputes, in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last May accused China of “destabilizing actions” in the West Philippine Sea.