BEIJING - China has accused the Philippines of violating a 13-year-old informal code of conduct in the South China Sea with its building work on disputed islets, firing back again after repeated criticism of China's own construction work.
China and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed an agreement in 2002 to refrain from occupying uninhabited reefs and shoals in the sea, and from building new structures that would complicate disputes.
In a statement just before midnight on Monday, China's Foreign Ministry urged the Philippines to stop its "malicious hyping and provocation" on the dispute, whose basis, it said, was Manila's illegal occupation of certain Chinese islands. "The Philippines side has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on those islands for many years," the ministry said.
The statement was issued after the Philippines Foreign Ministry said it was China that had violated the code with its construction, and was accusing Manila to justify and provide cover for Chinese reclamation work. "China has never, ever taken actions that may complicate and deteriorate the disputes or affect regional peace and stability," the Chinese ministry said, urging Manila to stop all building work and evacuate its people.
The Philippine foreign minister denied China's accusations of recent massive reclamation, saying the country had done minor, but legal, repair and maintenance within its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in the disputed area some years ago.
"We were doing some repairs and maintenance after the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) but repairs and maintenance is allowed," Albert del Rosario said. "Massive reclamation is not. Building on features in terms of massive reclamation is not allowed. That is in violation of not only the DOC, but the UNConvention on the Law of the Sea."
Disputes over how to tackle an increasingly assertive stance by China - an ally of several Southeast Asian states - in the strategic South China Sea make the issue the region's biggest potential military flashpoint.
China last week accused Vietnam, the Philippines and others of carrying out their own illegal building work.
China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, with overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the disputed Spratly Islands and may be planning another.
Those moves have caused alarm in the region, and Washington, too.