The Philippines on Tuesday protested China’s decision to build a military garrison on Woody Reef in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) summoned China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing and handed her a diplomatic note that also objected to the arrival of a large Chinese fishing fleet near the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Woody Reef is part of the Paracel Islands, which are contested by China and Vietnam. While the Philippines does not have territorial claims in the Paracels, DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said China’s plan to administer the Paracels and the Spratlys from the new city of Sansha was unacceptable.
China announced the creation of Sansha in June amid a territorial dispute with Vietnam, which had adopted a new maritime law that placed under Vietnamese sovereignty the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.
China created Sansha for the administration of the Paracels and the Spratlys, including islands claimed by the Philippines.
Hernandez said Sansha’s jurisdiction covered the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratlys, which “is an integral part of the Philippine territory falling under the municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan province.”
“For this reason, the Philippines does not recognize Sansha City and the extent of its jurisdiction and considers recent measures taken by China as unacceptable,” Hernandez said.
On July 12, China announced the departure from Hainan of a fleet of 30 fishing vessels—the largest Chinese fishing expedition in recent years—for the Spratlys. The fleet arrived at Johnson South Reef, in a part of the Spratlys claimed by Vietnam, on July 15.
The DFA said the Philippines protested China’s deployment of 29 fishing vessels, a cargo ship and two maritime ships near Kagitingan Reef and another vessel with bow number 934 near Zamora Reef on July 18.
Kagitingan Reef is internationally known as Fiery Cross Reef. Zamora Reef is the Philippines’ name for Subi Reef, which the country contests with China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Both reefs are part of the Spratly group of islands, islets, atolls and reefs in the West Philippine Sea believed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits.
It is unclear whether the Chinese fishing vessels have crossed into Philippine waters, but the DFA said earlier that it was verifying the exact location of the Chinese fleet.
Beijing refers to Woody Reef as Yongxing Island. On Monday, the Chinese defense ministry announced plans to build a garrison on Woody Reef.
The announcement came a month after Beijing designated Woody Reef as China’s administrative center for both the Paracel and the Spratly groups of islands.
China already has an airstrip on the reef. The airstrip is reportedly capable of handling all types of People’s Liberation Army planes.
In the diplomatic note handed to Ma, the DFA urged Beijing to “fully and sincerely abide by the spirit and letter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”
“We hope that China as a responsible country will exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the region,” Hernandez said.
Call for unity
Meanwhile, Malacañang said Tuesday that it would like to believe that the nation was one with President Benigno Aquino in his government’s stand on its territorial dispute with China.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said that when the President, in his State of the Nation Address on Monday, called on the Filipinos to unite behind his government in the country’s territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea, it did not mean that there were sectors that did not agree with the position he had taken.
“We are talking here of our country. I guess it’s safe to assume we are all for the Philippines,” Valte told reporters.
President Aquino also tried to assure the nation that his government was determined to find a solution to the dispute with China “acceptable to all.”
Relations between China and the Philippines remain tense even after Manila temporarily stepped back from a maritime standoff with Beijing at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in mid-June.
The standoff, triggered by Chinese fishermen’s poaching sharks and collecting rare clams and corals at the shoal, began in early April. It temporarily ended when President Aquino ordered home two Philippine vessels due to stormy weather on June 15.
China called home its fishing vessels, but not its maritime ships. There were reports last week that Chinese fishing boats had returned to Panatag Shoal.
President Aquino threatened to send government vessels back to the shoal unless China recalled its ships and boats home. With reports from Christine O. Avendaño and AFP