Philippines recalls envoy to China amid new sea spat

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The Philippine ambassador to China has been recalled for consultations, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Thursday amid fresh tensions in a seething maritime territorial row.

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Ambassador Erlinda Basilio flew back to Manila as the defense department this week accused China of laying 75 concrete blocks on disputed territory in the South China Sea, Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

“She was asked to come home for consultations, and she will (be in Manila) for the next few days,” Hernandez told reporters.

Sources said Basilio arrived last Tuesday.

Hernandez said Basilio was advising Filipino officials on how to handle the alleged Chinese actions at Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop about 220 kilometers off Luzon, within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.

Defence officials have expressed concern the Chinese block-laying could be a prelude to building structures at the shoal.

The outcrop is about 650 kilometers from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

Asked if Manila would lodge a diplomatic protest or undertake other options, Hernandez said: “We are still studying the matter.”

The Philippine foreign ministry earlier said President Benigno Aquino 3rd had also called off a planned trip to China on Tuesday for a trade fair after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on the trip.

The concrete blocks have raised concerns in Manila that China could be planning construction in the waters, as it did in Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in another area of the sea, in 1995.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei rejected the Philippine allegations of block-laying on Wednesday, while asserting China’s sovereignty over the shoal.

Basilio was seen with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario at the DFA head office in Pasay City on Thursday.

The ambassador was called back to the home office a few days after del Rosario arrived from Beijing where he attended the China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers Special Meeting.

It was while he was in Beijing that del Rosario apparently learned firsthand that President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s planned trip to China on September 3 for the 10th China-Asean Expo (Caexpo) will not push through.

Reports said arrangements for Aquino’s trip were never finalized because Undersecretary for Policy Evan Garcia failed to get back to Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing and Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin.

The Chinese government decided on August 27 to urge the Philippines to send a delegation headed by Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo instead.

The President, according to a Vera Files report, was the last to know about his trip to China was cancelled, since he had told a Vietnamese official he was attending the trade expo.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to the coasts of its neighbors.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and the rivalries have been a source of tension for decades.

The Philippines engaged China in a tense standoff at Scarborough shoal in 2012.

Manila has said the Chinese had effectively taken control of the shoal by stationing vessels there and preventing Filipino fishermen from entering the area.

In January the government asked a United Nations tribunal to rule on the validity of the Chinese claims to most of the sea.

China has rejected the move, but has said it wants to solve the dispute through bilateral negotiations with concerned parties.

BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON and AFP

 

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