Manila says China likely to build on reef near Philippines

Defence chief expects Beijing to lay claim to Scarborough Shoal, says that's unacceptable

MANILA • Manila expects Beijing to try building on a reef off the Philippine coast, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday, adding that this would be "unacceptable" in the waterway.

Mr Lorenzana told Agence France-Presse that he believed China would eventually reclaim Scarborough Shoal, just 230km from the main Philippine island of Luzon.

Beijing has already built up a number of islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, installing military facilities on several of them.

Analysts say similar installations on nearby Scarborough Shoal could give China effective military control over the flashpoint waterway - something the United States said it is not prepared to accept.

"They encroached," Mr Lorenzana said of a 2012 confrontation that saw Philippine vessels displaced from the shoal. "They occupied three islands (in the Spratlys) plus they are trying to get Scarborough. So to us that is unacceptable."

"If we allow them, they will build. That's very, very disturbing. Very much (more) disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close to us," Mr Lorenzana added, referring to one of the Philippine- claimed reefs China has built on.

Because of its position, another military outpost on Scarborough Shoal is seen as the last major physical step required to secure control of the sea.

An outpost there would also put Chinese fighter jets and missiles within easy striking distance of US forces stationed in the Philippines.

The shoal commands the north- east exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost on it could stop other countries' navies from using the waterway.

A United Nations-backed tribunal - in a case brought by the Philippines under then President Benigno Aquino - ruled last year that the so-called "nine-dash line" which underpins Beijing's claim to most of the South China Sea had no legal basis.

But Mr Aquino's successor Rodrigo Duterte has courted China and backed away from his country's close relationship with the US.

Mr Lorenzana said the island reclamation by Beijing was intended to secure control of the South China Sea. "That could be their strategy to counter any superpower that would encroach on South China Sea because they believe South China Sea is - that's like their lake to them - theirs," he added.

The US administration under President Donald Trump has indicated it will push back against any Chinese attempt to bolster control of the sea.

During his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US would block Chinese access to reclaimed islands.

Mr Lorenzana said the Philippines would soon repair a runway on Thitu island, one of its garrisoned features in the Spratlys which he planned to visit, and put up "additional barracks for the marines there".

The defence chief said Manila would try to "manage" the maritime dispute while working with Beijing in other areas such as patrolling the piracy-plagued southern Philippine waters.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Manila says China likely to build on reef near Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe