The Philippines warned on Wednesday that China may be building an airstrip on a reef in the 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 Johnson South Reef since January, the Department of National Defense said.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters 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.
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 department statement said.
China had 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,” Filipino defense department spokesman 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 Wednesday.
Last week, the Chinese press downplayed the reef reclamation and construction.
Quoting an unnamed source described as close to the construction, the Global Times reported China was merely “renovating the living facilities for troops stationed on the reef”.
The Philippines calls the outcrop the Mabini Reef, while China calls it Chigua Reef. Interntionally, it is recognised as the Johnson South Reef.
It is part of the Spratly chain, and is located about 300 kilometers (186 miles) west of Palawan.
It is not the first time the Philippines has made allegations against China over construction at disputed outcrops in the South China Sea.
In September last year, Manila accused Beijing of laying concrete blocks on disputed Scarborough Shoal that it said could be a “prelude to construction”.
However, in an embarrassing about-face, Manila dropped the allegations weeks later after concluding that the concrete blocks were previously-existing structures.
China took effective control of the shoal in 2012, the Philippine government said, stationing patrol vessels and shooing away Filipino fishermen after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy.
Beijing’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, which straddles vital sea lanes and is believed to sit on vast oil and gas reserves, has strained its ties with Southeast Asian countries.
Earlier this month, Vietnam accused China of ramming its ships in an encounter 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.
The Philippines in March filed a formal plea to the United Nations challenging Beijing’s alleged territorial claims to about 70 percent of the South China Sea, in defiance of Chinese warnings that it would seriously damage their already-frayed relations.
Manila claims that, under international law, it has exclusive rights to exploit the resources of waters and outcrops within its “exclusive economic zone”, or those that lie within 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) of its coast.
Beijing has rejected UN arbitration and urged Manila to settle the dispute through bilateral talks instead.