MANILA, Philippines - The action of the Philippine government over the Chinese reclamation project on one of the disputed islets in the West Philippine Sea is being closely watched by other nations in the region, a ranking lawmaker said yesterday.
Albay Rep. Al Francis Bichara, chairman of the House committee on foreign affairs, said the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, is seen as being at the forefront in blocking China’s increasing aggressiveness.
He said member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are closely monitoring the developments.
“The other ASEAN members are closely watching our every move so if we buckle or just let this (reclamation) pass, it could probably have an effect on the other claimants’ move,” Bichara said.
“But we won’t be provoked into a conflict or an armed confrontation, or else it will turn out that we’re starting a shooting war here,” he said.
He added that as far as the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is concerned, armed conflict is not being considered.
Bichara said he expects the DFA to issue a note verbale to the Chinese embassy or it could lodge another case before the United Nations.
He said China obviously wants to be in possession of the reef to prepare for explorations in the area.
Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian called on the government to push for a stronger and unified ASEAN to block China’s encroachment.
“It is high time for the ASEAN member states to strengthen our relationship with one another and counter China’s creeping invasion together,” Gatchalian said.
“As a party to the DOC, China must respect the signed document and follow its provisions, one of which mandates parties to hold themselves back from further complicating territorial disputes. China is doing exactly the opposite by building an airstrip on a reef in our very own territory,” he said, referring to the Declaration of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
The DFA said the reclamation and changing of the Mabini Reef feature will prejudice the Philippines’ case against China.
DFA spokesman Charles Jose said China is jeopardizing the Philippine arbitration case by changing the maritime feature into an island.
“It will jeopardize the case because they are trying to change the physical character or nature of the reef,” he said.
Jose pointed out this maritime entitlement may be changed if the Mabini Reef’s character is altered.
China could get an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles if it turns Mabini Reef into an island.
Jose said Thursday the size of the reclaimed land is already measured in hectares from the single concrete structure seen in 2013.
China maintained that whatever construction they had in Mabini Reef, which is Chigua to the Chinese, is within its sovereignty.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying, made the statement on Thursday when Beijing reporters asked her reaction over the photographs released by the DFA that revealed China’s reclamation activities on Mabini Reef.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Islands including Chigua Reef and the contiguous waters. Whatever construction China carries out in the Chigua Reef is completely within China’s sovereignty,” Hua said.
The Philippines released on Thursday a series of photographs showing the stages of extensive reclamation by China on Mabini Reef as Manila accused Beijing of destabilizing actions and violating the DOC and international law.
The series of photographs gathered from Philippine intelligence sources were released by the DFA showing stages of China’s extensive reclamation.
Several Filipinos joined the Vietnamese in a protest rally in front of the Chinese consulate in Makati City yesterday, slamming Beijing’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
Vietnamese groups demanded Beijing pull out its oil rig placed in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.
“By supporting our Vietnamese neighbors, we are showing that we are all one on the issue of China’s aggression in the region and illegal usurpation of Paracel islands in the South China Sea,” said Loida Nicolas Lewis, chair of the US Pinoys for Good Governance.
“We object in the strongest possible terms China’s deployment last week of a deep sea oil rig known as HD-981 within Vietnam’s continental shelf. We therefore express solidarity with the Philippines against Chinese aggression in defiance of international law and UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea),” said Hoi Trinh of Philippine-based group Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE).
Rogelio Santos of Filipinos Unite added China’s installation of an oil rig in Vietnamese territory is a wake-up call to the international community.
“It clearly shows that China’s intentions, willingness and capability to illegitimately occupy and extract the resources of other nations in blatant defiance of international law are very real,” he said.
Santos said the setting up of the oil rig in the disputed waters sets the stage for how the international community must respond.
“This is why we, as Filipinos, stand against China’s actions together with our Vietnamese brothers and sisters – for they are now where we could have been and where we could be if we don’t nip these actions in the bud,” he added.
The militant Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) assailed Beijing over the reclamation of land in Mabini Reef, saying China clearly violated the Philippine sovereignty based on “foul, false and ridiculous claim.”
Pamalakaya vice chairman Salvador France said the reclamation activity aimed at building an airstrip or an offshore military base is not only a provocative act but also a direct assault on Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity. – With Pia Lee-Brago, Mike Frialde, Michelle Zoleta