China Starts Building New Military Garrison in Panatag off Zambales Province of the Philippines – Aug 31

 

"We have ... sighted concrete blocks inside the shoal which are a prelude to construction," Gazmin said, displaying air surveillance photos of the rocks.

Photos were taken on Saturday (August 31), describing them as a worrying pattern of construction that would be similar to the building of a garrison on Mischief Reef in the late 1990s.

"First rocks, then a pile-driver, then a foundation," Gazmin told reporters after his testimony. "When you get back again, if you don't survey, there will be a garrison."

China is preparing to build a structure on an uninhabited piece of land in Panatag Shoal, an exclusive economic Zone of the Philippines an a violation of a 2002 DOC regional agreement.

The Philippine armed forces saw three Chinese coast guard ships and concrete blocks in the Scarborough Shoal as of Aug. 31, Gazmin told a congressional hearing in Manila today. The move contravenes a 2002 declaration between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to refrain from occupying land in the South China Sea, he said.

Friction over the South China Sea, which Philippines called "West Philippine Sea" in its 200 Nautical Mile Exclusive Economic Zone, one of the world's most important waterways, has surged as China uses its growing naval might to assert its vast claims over the oil- and gas-rich sea more forcefully, raising fears of a military clash.

Four of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims with China.

China and the Philippines accuse each other of violating the Declaration of Conduct (DoC), a non-binding confidence-building agreement on maritime conduct signed by China and ASEAN in 2002.

Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told a congressional budget hearing in Manila that China had violated the DoC by getting ready to build new structures on the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

The tensions heighten after Aquino reject China's demand to withdraw the Arbitration case in the United Nations one of the conditions raised by China set for him to attend a trade fair. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, lacks the military force to deter China from controlling disputed waters that may contain oil and gas reserves, and has asked the United Nations to rule on disputes.

"The important thing is we put men there, so this can be prevented," Gazmin told reporters. "We don't have the capability to do that at the moment."

Asked about Gazmin's remarks, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing today he had no information about the matter.

China has accused the Philippines of illegally occupying Ayungin Shoal, where Filipino troops have been stationed after a naval ship ran aground in 1999. The Philippines and Vietnam reject China's map of the sea, first published in the 1940s, as a basis for joint exploration of oil and gas.

'Chinese Hands'

Moves by China to build a structure on the shoal contrast with a softer tone taken on the territorial disputes since President Xi Jinping took power in March, according to Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Any structure would likely be a shelter for fishermen or an observation station rather than a military facility due to its remote location, he said.

"It wants to have a small concrete structure installed there just to let the world know it's under Chinese control, it's in Chinese hands," Li said. The Philippines is unlikely to risk using force to halt any construction because it would give China an excuse to take other disputed land features under Filipino control in the South China Sea, he said.

Sea Rules

The non-binding 2002 Asean-China agreement calls on parties to peacefully solve disputes and refrain from "inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features" in the South China Sea. China and Asean agreed to start talks this month on a legally binding code of conduct for the waters.

The Philippines asked the UN in January to rule on its maritime disputes with China, a move that leaders in Beijing oppose. China had demanded the Philippines withdraw its arbitration request for Aquino's planned visit this week to go ahead, the Associated Press reported yesterday, citing two Philippine officials it didn't identify.

China's foreign ministry on Aug. 29 urged the Philippines to work with China "to restore healthy and stable development of bilateral ties," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

"China has always treasured friendship with the Philippines," the ministry said, according to Xinhua.

Chinese ships have restricted access to the Scarborough Shoal since a standoff last year with vessels from the Philippines. The shoal is about three times closer to the Philippines than China, Aquino's government said in an arbitration note.

The Philippines may give the U.S. access to military bases, including Subic Bay in Zambales province north of the capital, Gazmin said on Aug. 30 during a briefing in Manila with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. U.S. naval forces occupied Subic Bay before they were forced to leave after the Philippine Senate ended their lease contracts in 1991.

China's biggest violation yet of the 2002 declaration - China said it's for Peace

 

Regional security scholar Ian Storey said that if Gazmin was correct, it would mark the biggest violation yet of the 2002 declaration.

"If China starts building at Scarborough, then it is an occupation and, I believe, the most egregious violation yet of the 2002 declaration," said Storey, who is based at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.

"It is a very significant development indeed and one that will certainly add to tensions."

Speaking at a China-ASEAN trade fair in the southern Chinese city of Nanning, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his country was serious about wanting a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea disputes, though signalled it was in no rush to sign a long-mooted accord to replace the DoC.

After years of resisting efforts by ASEAN to start talks on an agreement on maritime rules governing behaviour in the region, the so-called Code of Conduct, China has said it would host talks between senior officials this month.

Li said China had always advocated talks on the South China Sea on the basis of "respecting historical reality and international law".

"The Chinese government is willing and ready to assume a policy of seeking an appropriate resolution through friendly consultations," Li told the audience, which included Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

China would "proceed systematically and soundly push forward talks on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea", Li said without elaborating in comments aired live on state television.

He also repeated that talks on the dispute should only be carried out between the parties directly concerned, Beijing's standard line which rejects the involvement of outside parties such as the United States or multilateral forums.

Washington has not taken sides, but Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated in Brunei in July the U.S. strategic interest in freedom of navigation through the busy sea and its desire to see a Code of Conduct signed quickly.

Critics say China is intent on cementing its claims over the sea through its superior and growing naval might, and has little interest in rushing to agree to the Code of Conduct.

(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING and Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie)

News reports sources: RFTBP, Bloomberg and Yahoo News

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