China is shifting to a more aggressive approach in its South China Sea territorial row with the Philippines, analysts said, as Beijing begins land reclamation on a fourth disputed reef while attempting to turn another rocky outcrop into a "fully formed artificial island".
Philippine defence officials disclosed last Friday that China is reclaiming land off the Eldad reef. In the last two months, China has conducted similar activities in the Spratly chain of islands off three other disputed reefs - Gaven, Cuarteron, and Johnson South.
China has deployed land reclamation ships to the Gaven and Cuarteron reefs and is said to be building an airstrip on the vastly expanded Johnson South reef.
At the Eldad reef, a Chinese vessel has been photographed deploying a backhoe to scoop up gravel and sand in the surrounding waters, according to Philippine defence department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez.
He added: "It's called 'earth-moving activities', and there's quite a lot going on in the (South China Sea) that we are monitoring."
The South China Morning Post newspaper reported yesterday that China is also planning to expand its installation at the Fiery Cross reef, its biggest in the Spratlys, into a "fully formed artificial island, complete with airstrip and sea port".
The island would be at least twice as large as the United States' military base in Diego Garcia, an atoll 44 sq km wide in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the paper reported.
China designated Fiery Cross reef in 2011 as its "main command headquarters".
It currently has surface and air search radars, and a marine observation post commissioned by Unesco's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission on the reef.
Professor Amado Mallonga Mendoza Jr of the University of the Philippines said the flurry of Chinese activities in the disputed waters stemmed from China's efforts to exploit "opportunities" in the early stages of the United States' attempt to "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific.
The US strategy calls for more resources to be shifted from Afghanistan and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, though many have questioned whether the plan would work given Washington's budget constraints.
"China is simply exploiting this rare chance while the American rebalancing in Asia has yet to be completed," said Mr Mendoza.
"If the US rebalancing is not completed, then we will have a new strategic situation in Asia."
Mr Aquino's spokesman, Ms Abigail Valte, ruled out suggestions of a limited military response when asked about the Chinese activities in waters disputed by both countries.
"Who would be afraid of us, considering what we have and what they have?" Ms Valte told reporters in a news briefing yesterday.
She reiterated that the Philippines "would not respond to provocative action" and would persist with a diplomatic solution to the territorial row.
The Philippines has filed a case before a United Nations international tribunal contesting China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
Beijing has said all along it will not participate in the arbitration proceedings, preferring a bilateral approach to resolve the conflicts.
In a commentary yesterday, China's official Xinhua news agency labelled Manila's law suit as "political farce".
It added: "The sole reason why the Philippines submitted the dispute to an irrelevant third party is that it wants to further complicate the situation and make its dispute more of an international issue."