Beijing to build outpost on Scarborough Shoal: Hong Kong media

Boats at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea are shown in this handout photo provided by Planet Labs, and captured on March 12, 2016.
Boats at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea are shown in this handout photo provided by Planet Labs, and captured on March 12, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Beijing will start construction on a South China Sea islet in the Philippines' claimed exclusive economic zone this year, as it seeks to project its power in the disputed sea, Hong Kong media said yesterday.

China will establish an outpost on Scarborough Shoal, 230km off the Philippine coast, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) cited an unnamed source close to the People's Liberation Army as saying.

Beijing claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea and, despite competing claims from several South- east Asian neighbours, has in recent months transformed contested reefs into artificial islands, some with airstrips.

Manila claims Scarborough Shoal, but says China took effective control of it in 2012, stationing patrol vessels in the area and shooing away Filipino fishermen, after a two-month stand-off with the Philippine Navy.

SCMP cited the source as saying the outpost would allow Beijing to "further perfect" its air coverage across the South China Sea, suggesting it plans to build an airstrip.

China's activities in contested waters have raised concerns. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida yesterday said China's military buildup was making the world "worried".

"Candidly speaking, a rapid and opaque increase in (China's) military spending and unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas... are having not only people in Japan, but also countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the international community worried greatly," he said in a speech to business leaders, ahead of a trip to Beijing.

The SCMP report comes ahead of an international tribunal ruling, expected in the next two months, on a case brought by the Philippines over the South China Sea. It also follows an announcement by the United States and the Philippines that they would launch joint patrols in the sea.

The reclamation plans were likely to be accelerated in the light of the upcoming ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, SCMP cited the source as saying. "China should regain the initiative to do so because Washington is trying to contain Beijing by establishing a permanent military presence in the region," the source told the paper.

The US has sailed ships close to islands claimed by Beijing to challenge its claims and accused China of militarising the South China Sea.

Beijing says the sea is an inherent part of its territory and admits building airstrips and deploying weapons on some islands, but insists US patrols have ramped up tensions.

Besides China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the sea.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing 'to build outpost on Scarborough Shoal''. Print Edition | Subscribe