China denies designs on Scarborough Shoal

Posted on March 23, 2017

THE DEPARTMENT of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday said the government is maintaining a “close watch” on developments in the South China Sea, as Manila awaits Beijing’s clarification on its reported plan to further build structures on the disputed Scarborough Shoal within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Also on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry denied reports that China will begin preparatory work this year for an environmental monitoring station on the shoal.

Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte has drawn flak over his remarks last Sunday, March 19, that he cannot stop China’s activities on Scarborough Shoal -- following a Chinese official’s statements, since revised, on Beijing’s planned installation of an environmental monitoring station in the disputed waters, which are 405 km from the Philippine island of Luzon and 2,659 km from China.

In a press briefing in Thailand on Wednesday, Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo said the Philippine government has already sought China’s clarification on the issue and will wait for its reply.

“In the meantime, the Philippine government is maintaining a regular and close watch over Scarborough shoal,” Mr. Manalo said. “All we can really do is [to] wait for China’s clarification on the reported plan.”

In a text message to reporters yesterday, DFA spokesperson Charles C. Jose told reporters yesterday that the department last Tuesday sent a note verbale to the Chinese Embassy seeking clarification on the said activities on Scarborough Shoal. This is the second note verbale since the one sent on March 10, seeking Beijing’s explanation on Chinese survey ships at Benham Rise northeast of Luzon island and within Philippine sovereign rights.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio has stood out among critics of these developments, in his urging Mr. Duterte to adopt his suggested options that would convey a stronger Philippine position before China -- including a naval response in accordance with the Philippines’ mutual defense treaty with the United States.

Sought for comment on Mr. Carpio’s recommendations, Mr. Manalo said that while the high court justice is “knowledgeable” and “very involved” on these matters, his recommendations “would only swing in under certain conditions.”

“That’s why it is really difficult to comment on them,” Mr. Manalo added.

For his part, Mr. Jose said: “We should maintain the civilian nature so as not to escalate tensions.”

Mr. Duterte has been criticized for deferring since last year his avowed intention to take up with Beijing the arbitral ruling that time by a United Nations-backed tribunal against China’s favor. The ruling stemmed from a 2013 case by the Philippines brought by Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno S. C. Aquino III.

China seized the shoal following a standoff in 2012, thereby denying Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing waters. But the fishermen were allowed to return after Mr. Duterte’s state visit to China last year.

Earlier this month, Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, said China planned to begin preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal. Sansha City is the name China has given to an administrative base for the South China Sea islands and reefs it controls.

When checked by Reuters, Mr. Xiao’s comments as quoted by state-backed Hainan Daily had since been revised to remove mention of the shoal.

For her part, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing: “China places great importance on the preservation of the South China Sea’s ocean ecology, this is certain.”

“According to the relevant bodies in China, the reports you mention that touch upon building environmental monitoring stations on Scarborough Shoal are mistaken, these things are not true,” she added.

“With regards to Scarborough Shoal, China’s position is consistent and clear. We place great importance on China-Philippines relations.” -- Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral, with an additional report by Reuters