THE Philippines may lodge a protest with China against the reported presence of two military aircraft on a Chinese-built island in the South China Sea, the top Philippine diplomat said, amid concern that China is militarizing the waterway.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer published pictures on Wednesday that it said showed two military transport aircraft on the tarmac of Mischief Reef, which the Philippines claims.
The reef is the closest of the artificial islands that China has developed to the Philippines, and within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The newspaper said the photos were taken in January this year.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano told reporters the defense and military establishments had been asked to confirm the presence of the aircraft, after which the Philippines could ask China to explain it.
“Filing a protest is one of the diplomatic actions being considered, pending a confirmation from the defense department,” Mr. Cayetano said, adding the Philippines has proposed claimants reverse defense enhancements in the Spratly islands.
“Many claimants are putting embankments, radar, and other defensive mechanisms, the challenge now is how to stop it and roll it back,” he added.
The Inquirer showed what it said were surveillance photos obtained from an unnamed source, showing what appeared to be two Xian Y-7 transport planes.
Mr. Cayetano said claimants were talking to each other as well as “non-regional players” to resolve disputes and avoid a regional arms race.
On a related matter, Mr. Cayetano said the Philippines will not yet lift its moratorium on exploration in the disputed areas until a legal framework has been created between the two countries.
“We are not lifting the moratorium and we are in close coordination with the DoE (Department of Energy) because we also don’t want China to lift their de facto moratorium until we have a framework that’s acceptable to the two countries,” he said during a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Manila.
The DoE has suspended all oil and gas exploration and drilling in West Philippine Sea back in 2014 due to the country’s dispute with China.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte considered lifting the suspension following his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last November.
Mr. Cayetano said the Philippines is drafting its own legal framework to allow the joint exploration and has told China to craft its own as well.
“I do believe that if we find the right legal framework China and the Philippines and the companies involved… will find a way to finally explore and report to the people what is there, he said.
“I am very confident that we will find (a legal framework) for exploration but I admit development is a different animal altogether,” he added.
He said the Philippines is also in need of fuels once the gas in Malampaya Natural Gas Facility runs out soon.
Mr. Cayetano also assured the joint exploration talks between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea are transparent to other claimants as well.
“We’re only dealing in areas that it’s between China and Philippines and we’re completely transparent. We’re in constant communication with foreign minister counterparts of other claimants,” he said.
“Other claimants want to continue to work as a group and as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) brothers in dealing with the South China Sea issue but they do respect that when it is matter of bilateral relationship, they give us that,” he added.
Asked about developments on the Code of Conduct (CoC) in South China Sea, Mr. Cayetano said the recent meeting with ASEAN and China decided to tackle less sensitive matters of the document.
He admitted that the formulation of a legally-binding CoC remained a challenge in the region. However, he hoped the document would be ready for discussion among ASEAN leaders by the end of the year.
He said the South China Sea issue would possibly be brought up once again in the upcoming ASEAN summit in Singapore.
“There will be a continued reminder that we should not do any activity to further complicate. There will be discussions of the role of non-regional players. There will be whether formal or informal or pull asides about activities being done on occupied areas. But we want to not make the situation any worse but to make it better. So that will provide the atmosphere for the CoC, “ he said.— reports by Reuters, Camille A. Aguinaldo