China sea spat: Aquino backtracks on accusation

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino said yesterday the concrete blocks found on a disputed shoal in the South China Sea are "very old", backtracking on Manila's earlier accusation that China was building new structures in the area.

In an embarrassing twist after officials had accused China of preparing to build new structures on Scarborough Shoal, he said the blocks found within the shoal "are not a new phenomenon" and "some of them have barnacles attached to them".

The shoal is a group of rocks about 120 nautical miles off the coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon.

Friction over the South China Sea has surged as China asserts a vast claim over the oil- and gas-rich area, including the shoal. Last month, Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told a congressional hearing that China had violated a non-binding code by preparing to build new structures on Scarborough, showing lawmakers surveillance photos of the rocks.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in an earlier interview that the government will file a diplomatic protest against China, saying Beijing was moving to occupy the shoal.

China had denied the accusation and accused Manila of deliberately stirring up trouble over disputed waters in the South China Sea, insisting Scarborough is Beijing's "intrinsic territory".

Mr Aquino yesterday also said he does not share some analysts' views that the Philippines has lost control over the shoal, saying local fishermen can still freely go there. "We are not allowed to go to Scarborough Shoal - (that) seems to be an oxymoron... There's no rule that says we can't go there," he told foreign correspondents in Manila, insisting the area is within the country's exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines is also fighting an unprecedented arbitration case under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea against China's claims and has ignored growing pressure from Beijing to scrap the action.

Any result will be unenforceable, legal experts say, but will carry considerable moral and political weight.