China's reclamation around Spratly islands creates military tensions: Philippines

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - China's reclamation of reefs around the disputed Spratly islands is "worrisome" and is creating tensions with its neighbours and the world, the Philippines' military chief said.

The reclamation "will cause tensions among claimant countries not only because it could deter freedom of navigation but also due to its possible military purposes," General Gregorio Pio Catapang told reporters in Manila on Monday.

China must "stop the reclamation activities and be mindful of its responsibilities as a claimant state and an important member of the international community."

The comments come as more than 11,000 Filipino, US and Australian soldiers start war games off Palawan province near disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Disputes over the sea, of which China claims about four-fifths under a so-called nine- dash line drawn on a 1940s map, have escalated as China expands the reach of its military to back its territorial interests.

China's reclamation work has caused uneasiness among neighbours with overlapping claims to the South China Sea and among countries that use the sea lanes for trade and commerce, Catapang said.

"The size of this reclamation is making us wonder what the real intention is," he said.

- Military drills -

Catapang showed new aerial photos of China's massive reclamation activities that he said are causing widespread damage to biodiversity and ecological balance. The destruction of 300 acres of coral reef systems will cause economic losses to coastal states worth US$100 million (S$135 million) annually, he said.

China has begun building a runway on reclaimed land on the Fiery Cross Reef, according to IHS Jane's.

Catapang also accused China of tolerating environmentally harmful fishing practices by its fishermen who are now occupying Scarborough Shoal, saying it was "a Philippine territory that was grabbed and now being dominated."

The practices violate several international conventions including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, he said.

Conflicting claims must be addressed peacefully "so that we don't unnecessarily provoke each other and create instability in the region," the military chief said.

Chinese boats drove away at least 80 Filipino fishermen from the shoal on April 9, the Inquirer newspaper reported.

Catapang said the military drills that start on Monday are about territorial defence, maritime security and fighting terrorism, and are not directed against China.

China earlier reiterated its right to carry out construction work in the South China Sea after satellite photos showed images of Chinese dredgers at work at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, a feature also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

The Philippines has enough troops in areas it occupies, and will follow the rules, Catapang said. "Diplomacy will always be the top priority of the government."