The Philippines will press China over what it intends to do with the seven islands it has built in the South China Sea when the two sides meet for talks in May.
"We take it very seriously," Acting Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said yesterday, referring to a United States think-tank's report on Monday that China appears to have largely completed major construction of military infrastructure on its islands.
"I think this is one of the issues we will ask China: What is the intention of building these? They will have to give us an answer," he added.
China this week offered to host a meeting with the Philippines in May as part of a "bilateral consultation mechanism" to tackle issues related to the South China Sea.
It is not known yet which officials from both sides will be at the meeting, with Mr Manalo saying only that these will be "senior officials" .
'Code of conduct' covering underwater plateau
The Philippines and China could be looking into a "code of conduct" of their own that covers not just the South China Sea but also Benham Rise, which the United Nations declared to be part of the Philippines' continental shelf, diplomatic sources say.
Chinese survey ships were spotted at Benham Rise, a 13 million ha underwater plateau off the Philippines' north-eastern coast, from July to December last year, which alarmed Philippine defence officials. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Chinese could have been looking for submarine stations. But China said its ships were just passing through and it "fully respects" the Philippines' rights over Benham Rise.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte himself said he sees nothing wrong with Chinese ships passing through those waters, but has instructed the navy to maintain a presence there.
The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf confirmed in 2012 that Benham Rise was part of the Philippines' continental shelf. These largely unexplored waters are believed to be rich in natural resources.
Analysts warn that China's forays into Benham Rise could be part of its effort to control an island chain stretching from Japan to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. This would allow China to challenge the United States' dominance in the Western Pacific.
China has built seven artificial islands in the South China Sea.
But its Defence Ministry yesterday said there was "no such thing" as man-made islands. It said land reclamation work on the Spratly archipelago was construction work which China had every right to do as the Spratlys were inherent Chinese territory.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said on Wednesday that the Philippines is aware that China can now deploy military hardware such as combat planes, artillery and missiles on its three biggest islands in the Spratlys archipelago in the southern half of the South China Sea.
"Indeed the airstrips of 3km to 3.5km are in place. There are radars. But will these be for military use? It could be," he said.
He told reporters, though, that while these were a cause for concern: "What do you want us to do? Attack the facility?"
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the three airbases in the Spratlys and another on Woody Island in the Paracel chain farther north would allow China's military aircraft to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea.
A Philippine lawmaker, meanwhile, has filed a supplemental impeachment complaint to one that was filed two weeks earlier, this time over President Rodrigo Duterte's "defeatist stance" in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.
Mr Duterte was criticised for doing nothing to challenge China's activities in the South China Sea and Benham Rise, which is a 13 million ha underwater plateau off the Philippines' north-eastern coast.
"The President has already decided there's nothing we can do. Before the fight could even start, he has already given up," said Representative Gary Alejano, a former marine captain who took part in an attempted putsch to oust then President Gloria Arroyo in 2003.
Mr Alejano chided Mr Duterte for refusing to insist on an international tribunal's ruling last year that invalidated China's claim to most of the South China Sea.
The complaint adds to a laundry list of what Mr Alejano said are impeachable offences that amount to high crimes, abuse of power and betrayal of public trust.
He submitted an initial complaint two weeks ago, just as Congress went into a recess, so as to keep it in the spotlight and prevent Congress from dismissing it right away.
Congress reconvenes on May 2.