Manila: Worried over increasingly aggressive moves of China to stake claim on disputed reefs in the South China Sea, the Philippines is looking at establishing defence cooperation with allies, including India, a top official said here.

The Philippines is watching with heightened concern China’s moves at reclamation work on four reefs in the Spratly Islands that Manila says fall in its exclusive territorial waters. China has transformed one of the reefs, called Mabini Reef, in the South China Sea into a fully equipped naval base, complete with refuelling and weapons loading facility, and with a suspected air strip, officials said here.

Philippines Foreign Ministry spokesperson Charles C. Jose said that Manila had lodged a protest with Beijing over the reclamation work, “but China rejected it and said it is their territory”. He said from the size of the structures that China was building on Mabini Reef, “we can surmise they are building military structures”.

The Philippine Star this week came out with a front-page news item along with satellite images of China’s construction activities on the reefs in the South China Sea.


Full-scale reclamation projects

Besides Mabini, which is also called Johnson South Reef, China has begun full-scale reclamation projects on three other nearby reefs — on Burgos, Kennan and Calderon reefs. These fall in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the Spratlys Islands.

China is a signatory to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with the 10 Asean countries, according to which the countries are to resolve their territorial disputes through peaceful means and also refrain from inhabiting the uninhabited islets and reefs in the disputed waters. However, the document is non-binding in nature.

A military base on Mabini Reef, located 600km from the Chinese mainland where it has a military base on Hainan Island, would give China a naval-air force base strategically located in the middle of the sea.

China began its moves to occupy reefs in the disputed sea right from 1995 when it built structures on Mischief Reef, which is 230km from Palawan in the Philippines, while in 2012 it occupied Scarborough Shoal, a coral reef off the coast of Zambales in Luzon province, said the official.

These reefs and islets are part of Philippines “territorial entitlement”, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982, to which China too is a signatory.

Manila has filed an arbitration petition before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) over China’s violation of the UNCLOS provisions, said Jose.

The Philippines is seeking to establish defence cooperation with allies, and it would be holding joint defence commission meetings later this year with India, he said. “Defence issues would be discussed, including exchange of training,” he said.

He said the Philippines “welcomes the intervention by third parties who can help to bring stability to the region”.

He said the Philippines was keen to schedule a visit by President Pranab Mukherjee to the island nation this year, but last-minute “scheduling problems” caused the visit to be put off for next year.

Jose said the Philippines is also full of praise for the way in which India and Bangladesh settled their maritime boundary dispute, with a UN tribunal in July this year announcing its verdict.