A Philippine diplomat warned on Tuesday that any Chinese move to turn a disputed shoal, where the US Navy recently spotted a suspected Chinese survey ship, into an island will escalate the disputes in the South China Sea, and asked Washington to convince Beijing not to take that “very provocative” step.
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia Jr. told a news conference in Manila that a senior US Navy official reported spotting a suspected Chinese survey ship in the Scarborough Shoal a few weeks ago and expressed concern about its presence in the disputed offshore area.
The Philippine military checked but found nothing, possibly because the Chinese ship later left the shoal, he said.
China has said it has completed construction work to turn seven reefs into islands in the disputed Spratlys archipelago in the South China Sea, raising alarm in the region and sparking calls by Asian and Western governments for China to stop taking provocative actions that can lead to confrontations. Beijing says it owns the Spratlys, which it calls the Nansha Islands, and has a right to undertake construction there.
The US Navy sighting of the survey ship in Scarborough, a rich fishing area about 230 kilometers (145 miles) west of the Philippines, has reinforced suspicions that Beijing is eyeing the vast atoll as its next target in its island-making spree, Cuisia said.
“That, I think, will be very provocative if they will build on Scarborough Shoal,” Cuisia said, adding such an action “will further escalate the tensions and the conflict.”
The Philippines is incapable of stopping China from constructing an island in the shoal, where Filipino fishermen have been barred by Chinese coast-guard ships, Cuisia said. “We hope that the US and other countries…would convince China not to proceed with that,” he said.
Washington does not take sides in the disputes involving China, the Philippines and four other governments but has declared that ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waters is in its national interest.
Cuisia said he was involved in a US State Department-brokered deal for China and the Philippines to withdraw their ships simultaneously from Scarborough to avoid a potential clash during a tense standoff in 2012.
China reneged on that deal by refusing to withdraw its ships, after the Philippines did and now claims there was no such deal, he said.
“We were shortchanged,” Cuisia said. China, meanwhile, said the Group of Seven (G-7) nations should stop inflaming territorial disputes in Asian waters and focus its energy on dealing with a slumping global economy. This was in response to G-7 calls for countries to stop land reclamation and militarization in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“China is strongly dissatisfied with relevant moves taken by G-7,” Foreign Minister Spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement on Tuesday. “We urge G-7 members to abide by their promise of not taking sides on territorial disputes, respect the efforts by regional countries, stop all irresponsible words and actions, and make constructive contribution to regional peace and stability.”
The G-7 should have focused on righting a sluggish global economy, “instead of hyping up maritime issues and fueling tensions in the region,” he said.
Lu’s remarks were in response to G-7 foreign ministers raising concerns over tensions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, where China has been more aggressively asserting its territorial claims under President Xi Jinping. China “resolutely upholds its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” in the waterways, Lu said.
Sino-Japanese tensions have been on the rise over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, while China’s bid to control more than 80 percent of the South China Sea overlaps with claims of five other countries.
China has constructed artificial islands there, some with airstrips capable of landing military aircraft. Last year the US began to challenge China in the South China Sea by sailing warships near the islands in so-called freedom of navigation operations.
The G-7 foreign ministers urged “all states to refrain from such actions as land reclamations, including large-scale ones, building out outposts, as well as their use for military purposes and to act in accordance with international law, including the principles of freedoms of navigation and overflight,” in a statement released at the close on Monday of a two-day meeting in Hiroshima.
The statement didn’t mention China directly, which is a not a G-7 member. None of the five other states claiming territory in the South China Sea participated in the meeting. An editorial in the official Xinhua News Agency accused Japan of trying to use the G-7 to “contain China” and trying to divert China’s attention from the East China Sea by “interferring in disputes in the South China Sea.”
The South China Sea is a fertile fishing ground and hosts $5 trillion in annual shipping. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea that fall within China’s nine-dash line, the delineation of its claims that first appeared on a 1947 map.
China has deployed missiles, radars and fighter jets in territory it controls in the area and has stepped up its naval patrols in the waters and regular drives off Southeast Asia fishermen.
“The G-7 is going through the motions of making it clear to China that if they do something more, there will be a cost to bear,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “The G-7 statement gives the Americans a much stronger base to go to their key allies, including Australia, to get them to act in concert with them.”
(AP, Bloomberg News)