THE Philippines continues to rely on “China’s good faith,” Malacañang said on Monday amid news that Beijing has “reasonably” expanded an island in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“We don’t know where these works are. We continue to rely on China’s good faith,” Palace spokesman Harry Roque told reporters in a text message when asked about China’s reclamation in the disputed waters.
“Location is material since we do not have claims on all the islands and waters in the disputed area,” he added.
Citing a report posted on a website run by China’s National Marine Data and Information Service, news agency Reuters said Beijing has enhanced its military presence in the South China Sea as well as “reasonably” expanded its islands in the disputed sea.
There has also been an increase in military patrols, the report said, without providing specifics.
Reclamation ‘moving steaduly’
Chinese state media on Sunday said large-scale land reclamation around disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea was “moving ahead steadily,” and was on track to use giant “island-builders.”
Beijing claims nearly all of the sea and has been turning reefs in the Spratly and Paracel chains into islands, installing military facilities and equipment in the area where it has conflicting claims with neighbors.
“The course of construction is moving ahead steadily and a series of striking results have been achieved,” according to a report that appeared Friday on Haiwainet, a website under the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper the People’s Daily.
The projects have “completely changed the face of the South China Sea’s islands and reefs,” the report said.
The aggressive campaign has been a source of contention with neighboring countries. China’s sweeping claims overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
In 2017, China built 290,000 square meters (29 hectares) of facilities on South China Sea reefs and islands, including underground storage, administrative buildings and large radar installations, the report said.
“To improve the livelihood and work conditions of people living on the islands, and strengthen the necessary military defenses of the South China Sea within China’s sovereignty, China has rationally expanded the area of its islands and reefs,” it said.
The sea is believed to hold vast oil and gas deposits and $5 trillion in annual trade passes through it.
The report noted that with last month’s introduction of the new super-dredger Tianjing, a “magical island building machine,” and other “magical machines” soon to come, “the area of the South China Sea’s islands and reefs will expand a step further.”
China is also building a floating nuclear power plant, the report said, to provide power for those living in the Sansha city area.
Sansha lies on Woody Island in the Paracel chain – which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan – and administers much of China’s claims in the South China Sea.
China established Sansha in 2012 by unilaterally awarding it two million square kilometers of sea and declaring it the country’s largest city.
Earlier this month a US think-tank released new satellite images showing deployment of radar and other equipment on the disputed islands.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said that over the course of 2017, China had been advancing the next phase of development with construction of infrastructure to support air and naval bases, such as underground storage areas and large radar and sensor arrays.
“We believe that some individuals are making a fuss about this. They’re trying to hype it up,” said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang after the first report was published.
Arbitration set aside
Ties between Manila and Beijing soured after Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd filed, and won, a case in a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal against China’s sweeping claims on South China Sea.
The court said in 2016 that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by blocking fishing and oil exploration as well as by building reclaimed islands there.
But Duterte set aside the ruling and sought warmer relations with Beijing in exchange for Chinese investments.
The President has said he was hopeful China would keep its promise to stop the occupation of new features in the disputed South China Sea as he reiterated anew his strategy to settle the maritime row: Don’t insult the superpowers.