The Philippines’ armed forces chief said Thursday the country was considering building structures in areas that Manila claims in the South China Sea, as he accused China of doing so, despite a 2002 agreement barring new or expanded construction in disputed waters.
The statement was the strongest yet from a Filipino military officer amid a fresh dispute with Beijing over the discovery of scores of Chinese ships in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“The reason we did not build structures in the past was an agreement that no one should build anything there. However, China violated that,” Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters in an online briefing.
He was referring to a 2002 non-binding pact between China and member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which the parties agreed to refrain “from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands” and other natural features of the contested waterway.
China has continued to expand facilities in islands it controls and build artificial islands, Sobejana said, adding the Philippines could do the same.
“We are also entertaining the idea, of course, subject to the wisdom of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, of us building structures in the area just as China is doing,” Sobejana said.
Manila refers to its EEZ and claimed territory in the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.
Outclassed and outnumbered by the Chinese military presence in the sea, the Philippine naval fleet would require significant upgrading and logistical support from the government, Sobejana said.
To construct structures on Philippine-held reefs and islets would help deter further encroachment from other claimants, he said, although he did not elaborate on what kinds of structures.
In late March, Sobejana announced at the time that Philippine patrols had found “man-made structures that were built on some of the features,” and that these were “illegal.”
It is unclear whether the structures he referred to were new, but China has the most advanced and expansive infrastructure network in the South China Sea among claimant governments that include the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the dispute, but China has claims that overlap with the Indonesian EEZ.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not respond immediately to a query from BenarNews on Thursday.
Dispute over Chinese ships
Manila and Beijing have traded barbs since March when the Philippine government called out the presence of about 200 Chinese ships gathered near Whitsun Reef in the Philippine EEZ but which Beijing claims as its territory, along with most of the South China Sea.
Manila has been filing daily diplomatic protests with Beijing over what it called “Chinese maritime militia” intruding in recent weeks, but Beijing repeatedly denied the accusation, saying the vessels were fishing boats in Chinese territory.
Beijing has called Manila’s protests an “unnecessary irritation.”
On Thursday, Sobejana said he had summoned Beijing’s defense attaché in Manila last week to discuss concerns about the Chinese ships.
“We clearly told him that this area is our country’s territory because it is within our exclusive economic zone. On his part, he also presented a letter indicating that they own it,” Sobejana said of the meeting with the unnamed Chinese official.
The incident at Whitsun prompted Manila to deploy military boats and aircraft on maritime patrols – 10 naval ships were on the water as of Thursday, Sobejana said.
On Wednesday, the West Philippine Sea task force said four fisheries bureau ships and five Coast Guard ships and an aircraft were on a similar assignment.
These are no match to Beijing’s massive fleet, Sobejana acknowledged.
“It’s not enough, because the West Philippine Sea is quite vast. It would take a vessel on patrol there two to three months to cover the entire area,” Sobejana said.
Beijing has reclaimed and built military outposts on seven major reefs in the South China Sea.
Observers from Washington and Manila have said these outposts enable Beijing to maintain a constant fleet in the disputed waters.
By contrast, the Philippines controls Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, which is considered a municipality attached to the western province of Palawan.
Satellite photos from the Philippine-claimed Pag-asa taken in 2007 and 2019 show how construction has changed the face of the island over a dozen years, despite the 2002 agreement between China and ASEAN.
A few troops also rotate on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas) aboard a rusting naval ship purposely grounded there.
War ‘only the last option’
President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has been careful not to antagonize China, and has instead sought friendlier ties with Beijing rather than enforcing a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal thumbing down China’s expansive claims to the sea.
This week, he said he was prepared to send naval assets to the sea region only if Beijing started oil and mineral exploration in the area. He had also rejected suggestions by critics to file a complaint against China with the United Nations.
Sobejana on Thursday said that increased Philippine patrols in the South China Sea would not escalate tensions with Beijing.
“That will be a reaction coming from those who are going into our exclusive economic zone, particularly China,” the country’s top general added.
Philippine patrols are only out to secure Filipino fishermen, protect marine resources from overfishing, and increase “situational awareness” of the area, he said.
“Now as to how to resolve [the dispute]? Of course, anything may happen, but I should say that war, as you may perhaps be imagining, is only the last option, so we have to exert other means to resolve this problem in a diplomatic and peaceful manner,” Sobejana said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.