A new diplomatic protest to be lodged if the Chinese activities at Gavin and Calderon reefs proved to be land reclamation, as on Mabini Reef
Expressing concern, Philippine President Aquino said Chinese ships were seen moving around other reefs in the West Philippine Sea possibly to reclaim land, but he vowed to see through a peaceful resolution of the country's territorial dispute with China in the United Nations.
Aquino said Philippine authorities had observed the movement of Chinese ships around Gavin and Calderon reefs in the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea within Manila's 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone recognised under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Gavin Reef is internationally known as Gaven Reef. Calderon Reef's international name is Cuarteron Reef.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on Thursday said the Philippines would lodge a fresh diplomatic protest with China if the Chinese activities at Gavin and Calderon reefs proved to be land reclamation, as on Mabini Reef.
"We are taking a good look at what's happening there. If in fact it's clear to us that … the status quo there is being changed, then we will take a look at a formal protest," Del Rosario told reporters on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) conference on disaster risk reduction in Manila. "Right now, we aren't sure."
Aquino said the Chinese ships were similar to the vessels reclaiming land on Mabini Reef, internationally known as Johnson South Reef, in the West Philippine Sea.
"We are again bothered that there seems to be developments in other areas within the disputed [waters]," the President told reporters after speaking at the Asem conference. "The pictures that I saw were of ships that can be used for reclamation. These are just pictures, unlike Mabini where there was a transformation from nothing to a geographical feature," Aquino said.
In early April, Manila protested China's reclamation of land on Mabini Reef in an apparent preparation for the construction of an airstrip or an offshore military base.
Beijing rejected the Philippine protest, claiming Mabini Reef was part of its territory.
Both Gavin and Calderon reefs are covered by the arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea challenging China's claim of "indisputable sovereignty" over 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometre South China Sea.
That extensive claim has set China against the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, all of which claim parts of the South China Sea within their own exclusive economic zones.
Disputed by the six countries are islands, islets, reefs and shoals believed to be sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves.
The South China Sea is also crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes where a third of annual global cargo passes.
To avoid clashes among the claimants, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China signed an agreement, the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in 2002.
Under that agreement, the claimants are committed not to change the status quo in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has standing protests over China's incursions on its territory, including Mabini and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) off Palawan and Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales province.
If China's activities at Gavin and Calderon are leading to land reclamation, it would be another violation of the 2002 status quo agreement, Del Rosario said.
He described the situation as worrying, especially since the new reports of Chinese encroachment on Philippine territory came amid repeated incidents that had increased tensions between China and Vietnam in the East Sea, part of the South China Sea within Hanoi's exclusive economic zone.
China moved a deepwater oil drilling rig to the East Sea on May 1, sparking a face-off between dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese ships, with rammings being reported by Hanoi and one of its fishing vessels being sunk.
With China's apparent "expansion agenda," Del Rosario said he doubted Beijing's sincerity in pursuing negotiations with ASEAN on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a binding upgrade to the status quo deal that would prevent the territorial disputes from erupting into armed conflict.