MANILA - The Philippines has China's assurances that there is no plan to convert Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island and erect facilities on it as happened with several other disputed features in the South China Sea, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said Thursday.
"We are happy and assured of the fact that they will not do so...In fact, they deny that (as) being part of their plans at this point in time," Yasay told reporters.
He said Chinese President Xi Jinping made that assurance to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when he visited Beijing last October.
After that fence-mending visit, Filipino fishermen were again able to access the area around Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground located within the exclusive economic zone declared by the Philippines.
China in early 2012 seized control of the U-shaped shoal and deployed navy and coast guard vessels to prevent Philippine fishermen from accessing the area.
That led the Philippines to file a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which ruled in Manila's favor in July 2016.
The court rejected China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea and said it had "violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone."
Besides rejecting the court's ruling, China has in recent years been flouting a 2002 agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to preserve the status quo in the South China Sea, amid competing claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
It has conducted massive reclamation activities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs, and installed weapons systems.
Duterte, who became president in June last year, has adopted a China-friendly policy by setting aside the arbitral ruling in favor of reinvigorated economic ties between Manila and Beijing.
His administration has also agreed with China to tackle the matter bilaterally, contrary to the strategy of the previous government under President Benigno Aquino to seek third-party intervention while also adopting a multilateral approach.
But Duterte has said he will raise the sensitive issue before his term ends in 2022, particularly if China begins to extract mineral resources in the disputed areas.
Yasay said if China builds on Scarborough Shoal, "that will really be a game-changer, in so far as our tack and what we have agreed upon is concerned on how to pursue our disputes."
"That's really a very serious provocative act. That is precisely already blatantly undermining our claims, if they will do it," he said.