Chinese 'land reclamation' ships at reefs: Aquino

MANILA - CHINA has deployed ships that can be used to reclaim land in two more disputed reefs in the Spratly Island chain, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has disclosed.

Speaking on the sidelines of an international disaster-management forum yesterday, Mr Aquino said vessels similar to the ones China recently used to move gravel and sand at Johnson South Reef had been spotted around Gaven and Cuarteron reefs.

"We are again bothered that there seems to be developments in other areas within the disputed seas," Mr Aquino told reporters.

Johnson South, Gaven and Cuarteron reefs are all part of a chain of islands in the South China Sea known as the Spratlys that are being disputed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

China already has permanent reef fortresses, supply platforms and harbours at Johnson South, Gaven and Cuarteron reefs. It has also built structures on three other Spratly reefs: Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that Manila would consider a formal protest "if it is clear to us that the status quo has been changed".

Last month, Philippine security officials released surveillance photos that showed a "sizeable reclamation" at Johnson South Reef, where the Chinese are reportedly building an airstrip.

The Chinese are believed to have drawn up "blueprints" for an airstrip located on Cuarteron Reef as well.

Manila claimed the reclamation was being done to thwart a case it lodged before an international arbitration court in March challenging China's "nine-dash line", which claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

The Philippines argues that in reclaiming land, China is transforming a reef, which is entitled to just 12 nautical miles of territorial sea, into an island, which is entitled to as much 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zone.

This effectively throws a spanner in the works of Manila's core arguments. Its memorandum to the court had set out the extent of waters that the land features are entitled to.

Separately, in a rare move, China invited the international media in Hong Kong yesterday to a briefing, during which it sought to lay out its stance on foreign relations.

This, say some observers, is possibly the first step in a new public relations campaign by China to push its case on prickly territorial disputes and improve its image.

China's Deputy Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Jiang Yu spoke extensively at the session, insisting that China has never engaged in provocative actions, and "would not want anything that does not belong to us". She also touched on Sino-American relations, reiterating that the Asia-Pacific region is vast enough to accommodate both powers.

At the same time, she called on Asian countries to "step up mutual trust, abandon obsolete Cold War mentality, treat neighbours as partners and constantly deepen mutual trust".

"We need efforts from Asians themselves," she said in what appears to be a gentle lob at the United States' Asia pivot, seen by many in China as a ploy to encircle and contain its growing power.

rdancel@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Li Xueying in Hong Kong