CHINA may be building a new airstrip on a cluster of islands in the South China Sea, in a move that is further raising tensions in the already volatile area, the Philippines warned.
Surveillance photographs taken by the Philippine Navy showed China had been moving gravel and sand to the mostly submerged Johnson South Reef, a rocky outcrop that is part of the disputed Spratly island chain, Defence Department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.
It's a "sizeable reclamation", he told The Straits Times.
He declined to speculate what the Chinese are building, but Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose was quoted earlier in the day as saying it was an airstrip.
Chinese plans for a second airstrip have also been drawn up, a Philippine internal security analyst said.
In a statement yesterday, the Philippine Foreign Ministry said Manila lodged a protest on April 4 saying that the reclamation violates an informal "code of conduct" that bars claimants from building new structures in the South China Sea, but that Beijing dismissed it.
President Benigno Aquino also raised the issue behind closed doors at last weekend's Asean summit in Myanmar, it added.
If confirmed, the Johnson South Reef airstrip will be China's first on any of the eight reef islands it occupies in the Spratlys.
Earlier photographs taken by the Philippine military showed that China already has a three-storey building ringed with gun emplacements, and a helipad on the reef. These facilities were built after the reef figured in a bloody skirmish between China and Vietnam in 1988 that left more than 70 Vietnamese dead.
China also has a three-storey structure on Mischief Reef, which is part of the Spratlys. Built in 1995, it began as a cluster of huts supposedly to shelter Chinese fishermen, but has been beefed up over the years into a naval fortress for Chinese warships.
China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea. Other claimants to parts of the waters are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Except for Brunei, the four all have an airstrip on the reefs they occupy.
Mr Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Centre for Intelligence and National Security Studies, told The Straits Times that he has received reports that there are "blueprints" for a second Chinese airstrip, to be built on the London Reefs.
Mr Banlaoi, who has written a book on the South China Sea, said the airstrips "will definitely create tremendous changes in the balance of power in the Spratlys".
But he added that they will also "change the dynamics of the conflict", creating "a pretext for other claimants to unite against China".