New photos of Chinese expansion in S. China Sea

Manila says Beijing's reclamations threaten its 'naval arc of defence'

THE Philippines has released new aerial photos of Chinese land reclamations in the South China Sea that it said seriously threaten its "naval arc of defence".

With that threat in mind, President Benigno Aquino will ask fellow Asean leaders when he meets them in Kuala Lumpur next week to issue a "collective statement" denouncing China's "worrisome" territorial expansion.

Philippine military chief Gregorio Catapang told a news conference yesterday that the artificial islands China is building on Johnson South, Subi and Mischief reefs will form a chain that cuts off areas the Philippines occupies in the Spratlys from its main archipelago.

General Catapang said the three Chinese bases will bar access to the 37ha Thitu island, the second-largest of the Spratly islands - occupied by about 300 Philippine civilians and dozens of soldiers - that Manila considers a district of Palawan province.

China will also effectively isolate Second Thomas Shoal, where a contingent of marines guard a World War II navy ship the Philippines beached in 1999.

In recent years, the shoal has served as backdrop for cat-and- mouse chases between Chinese government ships and civilian craft hired by the Philippine military to resupply its marines.

"The reclamations there will threaten all our defences… We see ourselves in a very difficult situation," said Gen Catapang.

He said that when all seven of China's bases in the Spratlys become operational, "the next move of the Chinese might be to propagate the area not only with civilian but also military ships. That will really militarise the area and create tensions".

In a separate news briefing on the 26th Asean summit that kicks off on Sunday in Malaysia, Assistant Foreign Secretary Luis Cruz said Mr Aquino "would aim for a collective statement, this time on the issue of the reclamation of some features in the South China Sea".

"We are hopeful that (Asean) will issue a very strong state- ment… (Mr Aquino) has already said that this is not a bilateral issue, this is not a regional issue, but the world should really be concerned about this issue," Mr Cruz said.

He disclosed that Vietnam has approached the Philippines for bilateral discussions on a "strategic partnership" to roll back China's massive reclamation works in the South China Sea.

Explaining Hanoi's move, Philippine military consultant Jose Custodio said Vietnam has more at stake because China's chain of island bases in the Spratlys is actually targeted more at cutting off Vietnam from its occupied territories in the South China Sea.

Mr Aquino had said earlier he would push for, at the summit, the resumption of formal talks on a Code of Conduct governing the South China Sea, which have been stalled since 2002.

The flurry of concerns came as nearly 12,000 American and Filipino soldiers yesterday kicked off the largest of their annual military exercises in 15 years.

US and Philippine officials insist that the joint operations - dubbed "Balikatan" (shoulder-to- shoulder) - are not directed at China, although some of the war games are being conducted in coastal areas west of the main island of Luzon and Palawan province that face the South China Sea.