China says military assets in the South China Sea not directed at neighbours: Philippine envoy

Activists carry placards during a protest against Beijing's claims in the South China Sea, in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on Feb 10, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - China has said that the military assets it is deploying on disputed islands in the South China Sea are not aimed at the Philippines and other neigbouring countries, according to the Philippine envoy to Beijing.

"It is part of the rivalry between a rising China and the US over the South China Sea," Ambassador Jose Sta Romana told reporters, after Philippine and Chinese officials met here for bilateral consultations on the South China Sea.

"The Chinese assured us that this is not aimed at the Philippines, that this is not aimed at the neighbouring countries," he said.

Mr Sta Romana also said the Philippines was "compartmentalising" its relations with China.

"We do not wish to be caught in the great power rivalry. That is the essence of the independent foreign policy. We want to remain friends with both, and to gain the maximum benefit," he said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) worth of goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the waterway.

Latest surveillance photos show that Beijing has nearly finished building air and naval bases on the seven islands it has occupied in the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea.

The three biggest islands already have runways, lighthouses, radar domes, hangars and multi-storey buildings, while the smaller islands have helipads, wind turbines, and observation and communication towers.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US think tank, has also reported the presence of underground tunnels, missile shelters, radars and high-frequency antennas on the islands.

Mr Sta Romana said that the Philippines reiterated Asean's concerns over this militarisation of contested waters in this week's bilateral meeting with China.

"But we have a difference of opinion. The Chinese consider it their right to reclaim and to set up what they consider as defence facilities," he said.

Still, it was already a "breakthrough" that China listened, Mr Sta Romana added.

"They have their own views. But I think we have expressed our position. We don't necessarily agree. We don't expect an agreement right away. But we try to achieve consensus to manage the tension," the envoy said.

Both China and the Philippines have agreed to push on with plans to jointly explore for oil and gas in the waterway.

Mr Sta Romana said they would be setting up a "study group" to identify areas where joint explorations are possible.

"It's just the start of a process," said Mr Sta Romana, but he described it as a "breakthrough".

Forming an agreement for a joint project would be extremely complex and sensitive as both countries claim jurisdiction of the site of the oil and gas reserves, so sharing them could also be deemed as legitimising the other side's claim or even ceding sovereignty.

The idea of joint development was first hatched in 1986, but disputes and the sovereignty issue have served as stumbling blocks to its fruition.

Time is of the essence for the Philippines, which relies heavily on energy imports to fuel its fast-growing economy. Estimates show that its only domestic natural gas source, the offshore Malampaya field, will be depleted by 2024.

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