South China Sea assets 'not aimed at neighbours'

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 neighbouring countries, according 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."

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.6 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 ones 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.

DIFFERENCE OF OPINION

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.

AMBASSADOR JOSE STA ROMANA

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 South China Sea.

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," he said, but described it as a "breakthrough".

Forming a deal for a joint project would be highly complex and sensitive as both 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'South China Sea assets 'not aimed at neighbours''. Print Edition | Subscribe