The Philippines warned on Wednesday that China may be building an airstrip on a reef in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), as the Asian superpower asserts its claim to most of the strategic area.
Filipino military surveillance aircraft have been documenting large-scale earthmoving activity on Chinese-held Mabini Reef, recognized internationally as Johnson South Reef, since January, the Department of National Defense said.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that the Philippines had filed a diplomatic protest against China’s reclamation works on the reef last month, but Beijing rejected it on grounds the reef is part of Chinese territory.
When asked if China was building an airstrip on the reef, also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, del Rosario said: “That’s one possibility.”
“On 04 April 2014, the Philippines protested Chinese reclamation on Mabini (Johnson) Reef. The Chinese side rejected the protest,” a Foreign Affairs department statement said.
China earlier built structures on the reef after seizing it and other outcrops from Vietnam in a deadly 1988 skirmish.
“We can confirm that there is ongoing reclamation or earthmoving activities in that
portion,” Defense spokesperson Peter Galvez told reporters.
“Is that a possible airfield? We cannot speculate at this point,” Galvez said.
“It has been getting bigger and bigger,” he added.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Last week, the Chinese press downplayed the reef reclamation and construction.
Quoting an unnamed source described as close to the construction, Global Times reported that China was merely “renovating the living facilities for troops stationed on the reef.”
China refers to Mabini Reef as Chigua Reef. It is part of the Spratly chain, and is located about 300 kilometers west of Palawan.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Malacañang spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the construction on Mabini Reef “appears to be a reclamation project.”
Lacierda said President Benigno Aquino 3rd raised this issue at a retreat of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Myanmar on Sunday.
Since Vietnam also has claims in the disputed area, Aquino insisted on multilateral talks rather than the bilateral dialogue that China wanted.
Lacierda added that the Philippine government will adhere to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in resolving its row with China.
The Philippines also included the Mabini Reef in its memorial to the arbitral tribunal of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (Itlos), which will decide on the maritime claims of the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea.
In 1995, the Philippines found out that China built structures in the Mischief Reef,
which is 230 kilometers from Palawan. In 2012, Beijing took control of the Scarborough Shoal, which is 230 kilometers from the coast of Zambales.
Chinese maritime surveillance ships and frigates frequently show up in the Second Thomas Shoal, just 194 kilometers from Palawan.
The Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal all fall within the Philippines 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Earlier this month, Vietnam accused China of ramming its ships near another part of the sea where Beijing had deployed a deep-sea oil rig.
Those actions were described as “provocative” by US Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.