The Philippines has accused China of reclaiming land around a contested reef in the South China Sea, sparking another escalation of the crisis in the waters.
Manila said Beijing was moving materials to Johnson South – a reef in the Spratly Islands that China occupies and calls Chigua – in breach of a regional code of conduct that bans construction in disputed areas. China won control of the reef in 1988 after a brief conflict with Vietnam that took the lives of dozens of Vietnamese.
A Philippine official said that aerial photographs show that China had started reclaiming land as early as February.
Charles Jose, the foreign ministry spokesman, told Reuters that China planned to build an airstrip. But he disputed those remarks to the FT. The other Philippine official said it was too early to determine what the land would be used for.
The Philippine foreign ministry said in a statement that Manila had made a protest to China in early April, which was rejected by Beijing. Philippine president Benigno Aquino also raised the issue at last weekend’s meeting of Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] leaders in Myanmar.
China has not publicly responded to the claims. But after photographs appeared online last week showing construction equipment at the reef, Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Communist party, said China was renovating the living quarters of the Chinese troops stationed there.
The Philippine claim marks the latest escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, the location of crucial global shipping routes. China and Vietnam have been engaged in a tense stand-off near the disputed Paracel Islands for over a week after China moved an oil rig to the area, in a move the US said was “provocative”.
The Sino-Vietnam spat has also sparked protests across Vietnam. Hanoi, which usually takes a harsh stance on protests, has allowed demonstrators to protest near the Chinese embassy. On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that 10 Chinese factories in Vietnam had been set on fire, or looted, by Vietnamese protesters.
Yue Yuen, the world’s biggest sports shoe maker which has operations in Vietnam, said it could not confirm the reports. But George Liu, executive spokesman for Yue Yuen, said the Hong Kong-listed Taiwanese company had suspended production in Vietnam as a precaution.
In April Yue Yuen witnessed the largest labour unrest in China in decades when roughly 40,000 employees went on strike.
China has long had disputes over the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. But over the past five years, it has started asserting its claims more strongly, leading to a number of incidents at sea with ships owned by most of the other South China Sea claimants and also the US.
In 2012, Chinese and Philippine ships had a month-long stand-off at Scarborough Shoal. The US tried to choreograph a joint withdrawal, but the Chinese vessels remained after the Philippine boats left, giving China control of the disputed reef.
The incident acted as a catalyst for Manila’s decision to challenge China’s territorial claims at The Hague. The Philippines is asking a tribunal to invalidate the “nine-dash line”, a demarcation on Chinese maps that encloses most of the South China Sea, raising concerns about Beijing’s territorial intentions.
This year, Chinese ships have repeatedly tried to block Philippine boats from delivering supplies to a ship called the Sierra Madre lodged on top of the Second Thomas Shoal. A handful of marines man the rusty vessel which was deliberately run aground in 1999 to reinforce Manila’s territorial claims.
Last year, China lambasted the Philippines for accusing it of preparing to start construction at Scarborough Shoal. Manila was later forced to retract the inaccurate claim, in an embarrassing U-turn for Philippines President Benigno Aquino.
While China’s relations with the Philippines have been on a downward spiral for several years, the decision to move the oil rig to the Paracels came as ties with Vietnam were on a positive trajectory. It also comes just weeks after President Barack Obama visited Asia to reinforce the US “pivot” to the region.
菲律宾政府表示中国政府正将建筑材料运往约翰逊南(Johnson South)礁，这么做违反了禁止在争端区域构筑建筑物的行为准则。该岛礁属于斯普拉特利群岛(Spratly Islands,中国称南沙群岛)，目前由中国占领并被中国称为赤瓜礁。1988年，中国与越南发生短暂冲突后获得了该岛礁的控制权，那次冲突导致数十名越南人丧生。