Philippines removes sandbar huts after Chinese complaints

Duterte orders troops to leave the 'land feature' in South China Sea

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the removal of huts built by Philippine troops on a sandbar in the South China Sea, after China complained about them.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana disclosed this yesterday, telling reporters about the removal of these structures from a sandbar 4km off Thitu Island, which is occupied by the Philippines. The huts were built by the Philippines in August and meant to be shelters for Filipino fishermen. But Chinese patrol boats soon approached the sandbar and demanded that the huts be removed.

"They complained that we (were) occupying a new feature," said Mr Lorenzana on the sidelines of a forum on next week's Asean summit.

He said Mr Duterte told troops to remove the huts and pull out of the sandbar, after he was informed that the Philippines and China had agreed not to occupy new land features in the South China Sea.

"This is a new feature. This cropped up from the sea. It took the definition of a new feature. Since we agreed not to occupy new features, we really cannot occupy (the sandbar)," said Mr Lorenzana.

He said the incident prompted Philippine and Chinese officials to come up with a "mechanism" to settle disagreements on the ground, without bringing these up to the higher authorities.

"If you have to bring matters like this, say, to the President, it will take days. Meanwhile, something could happen - miscalculation, miscommunication," he said.

The disclosure comes as Asean and China in August agreed on a framework for a code of conduct to manage disputes in the South China Sea, an issue to be discussed when Asean leaders meet in Manila next week. One of its objectives is to prevent tensions and manage incidents should they occur, so that they do not escalate. While some have said the framework does not go far enough, Asean ministers have said it is still a step forward and signals commitment on both sides to make progress on managing the longstanding dispute.

The sandbar lies between Thitu, where the Philippines has a small community as well as a contingent of marines, and Subi reef, where China has built a sprawling island.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, citing historic rights. It is being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, which claim parts of the vital sea lane.

Meanwhile, yesterday, in a news conference prior to his departure for the Apec summit in Danang, Vietnam, Mr Duterte said he would press China to clarify its intentions in the South China Sea. Noting that China has claimed every part of the South China Sea, he said: "I'll ask, 'What are the stakes? You want to control the passage, or do we have the free passage?'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'Philippines removes sandbar huts after Chinese complaints'. Print Edition | Subscribe