STRONG world opinion against China’s occupation and reclamation of areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) may have softened Beijing’s hardline stance on its maritime and territorial disputes with neighboring countries, including the Philippines.
“The most glaring reality is that we are not alone, and because of that, the options are increasing from countries who believe in the rule of law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos),” Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. told reporters in Malacañang on Thursday.
Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, locking it in rows with several neighbors, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.
Its project to build artificial islands and facilities on various reefs and outcrops in the Kalayaan (Spratly) islands only became publicly known in recent months but construction has since been rapid, raising tensions with both its neighbors and the United States.
Washington wants Beijing to halt the construction and militarization, which “the Chinese show no indication of willingness to do,” Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said.
Coloma said the international support to Manila’s position on the disputes may have played a role in China’s seeming decision to reconsider pursuing its island-building move.
“It is clear that world public opinion against it is increasing and this may be a reason why they [China] declared the end [of]or [that they]will no longer continue what they started, which is contrary to reason and justice,” he added.
Coloma was reacting to a recent statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that they have already finished a number of construction activities in the South China Sea amid reports that Beijing has been putting up military garrisons on one of the contested reefs.
According to the CSIS, a 9,800-foot airstrip that Beijing is building on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef is “nearly complete.”
A satellite picture taken on Sunday showed that China was paving and marking the runway and an apron and taxiway have been added.
A lake in the middle of Kagitingan Reef has been filled in and it has a partly developed port with nine temporary loading piers, CSIS said.
Personnel could be seen walking around and two helipads, up to 10 satellite communications antennas and one possible radar tower were also visible, it added.
Glaser of CSIS said she anticipated a short-term lull in the construction as summer is typhoon season in the South China Sea while China’s President Xi Jinping is due to visit the US in September and “the Chinese are attaching priority to having a successful summit.”
But she added that she expects activity would pick up again later.
The island is now 2.74 square kilometers, CSIS said.
China has reclaimed land on seven different reefs totaling an estimated 12.8 square kilometers, it added.
At one of the sites, South Johnson Reef, CSIS said Beijing has added a small port with two loading stations, two helipads on the reef and up to three satellite communications antennas.
It also had a “large multi-level military facility” with two possible radar towers being built, along with up to six security and surveillance towers, and four possible weapons installations.
The US government, the European Union and the G7 countries have all expressed support to Manila’s position on the issue.
The Philippine government has filed for arbitration before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos), where it questioned China’s nine-dash ruling on asserting sovereignty over a vast expanse of the contested waters.
Coloma said these expressions of support, coupled with strong resolve of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to implement the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) that was forged with China in 2002, must have weighed heavily against the Chinese position.
“No matter how they put it at present, they should answer for what they declared in 2002. The Declaration on [the]Conduct [of Parties in the South China Sea]that China signed with members of the Asean… It states that the signatories should respect the status quo. It also provides that the existing features in the South China Sea should not be tinkered with,” he explained.
Coloma maintained that China had clearly violated its own declaration.
“That’s why whether they have already stopped or about to stop, they cannot deny that they have violated the 2002 declaration, and it is important to raise this point in seeking out a peaceful, rules-based and diplomatic solution [in resolving the conflict],” the Palace official pointed out.
He said it is for this reason that the government has decided to also stop repair work on Pag-asa (Thitu) island to prove that Manila respects the declaration it signed.
According to Coloma, the statements by various groups of nations and world leaders are glaring proof that many “decent nations and individuals in the global community” believe in the Philippines’ posture.
“And because we continue to reap such support, not only from our neighbors but even from the G7 countries, the European Community, in our view, this is a good indication of how reasonable and just our position is… we should be determined to pursue our position,” he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), meanwhile, said it is unfazed by Beijing’s expression of disgust over the public showing of documentaries about the South China Sea dispute, adding that it would continue holding seminars and forums as part of its efforts to educate the public on the issue.
“The forums aim to present the core issues of the West Philippine Sea dispute, the principles guiding Philippine official policy and the Philippine government’s efforts to protect the country’s interests, and to elicit questions and views from a mixed audience,” a DFA statement also on Thursday said.