Philippines removes hut on contested sandbar after China complaint

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the withdrawal of a structure put up on a sandbar near an island the Philippines occupies in the South China Sea, after China complained about it.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the withdrawal of a structure put up on a sandbar near an island the Philippines occupies in the South China Sea, after China complained about it. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the withdrawal of a structure put up on a sandbar near an island the Philippines occupies in the South China Sea, after China complained about it.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters on the sidelines of a forum on the upcoming Asean summit on Wednesday (Nov 8) that Philippine troops had in August built a hut on the sandbar, 4km off Thitu island, for use as a shelter for Filipino fishermen.

Soon after, Chinese patrol boats approached the sandbar and demanded that the hut be removed.

"They complained that we (were) occupying a new feature," said Mr Lorenzana.

He said Mr Duterte then instructed troops to remove the hut, after he was informed that the Philippines and China had already 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)," he said.

Mr Lorenzana said the incident prompted Philippine and Chinese officials to come up with a "mechanism" to settle disagreements by those on the ground, without bringing these up to 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 that is set 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.

In October, a lawmaker said three Chinese fishing boats and a navy ship were spotted near the sandbar to shoo away Philippine patrols and fishing boats.

The sandbar lies between Thitu, where the Philippines has a small community and 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.