MANILA – China planned to undertake reclamation work in Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) in the disputed South China Sea, but the United States apparently managed to talk Beijing out of it, the Philippines’ defense chief said Thursday.
“There was a plan by Chinese in June to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. In fact, we received reports that there were barges already loaded with soil and construction materials going to Scarborough. But the Americans told the Chinese ‘don’t do it’. For some reasons, the Chinese stopped,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a forum.
The shoal, located 230 miles from Luzon and prized by Filipino fishermen for its rich resources, was seized by China from the Philippines in 2012.
Chinese coast guard blocked Filipino fishermen from accessing the shoal, prompting Manila to bring Beijing to a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal.
The tribunal last year ruled that the shoal is a common fishing ground and China may be violating the Philippines’ rights by blocking access to it.
Since assuming the presidency last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to forge closer ties with China, choosing to downplay the arbitral ruling favoring the Philippines in exchange for reinvigorated economic ties between the two neighbors. China has since loosened its grip on the shoal and allowed Filipino fishermen access to it.
Lorenzana, meanwhile, said it is a misconception that Duterte is “setting aside” Manila’s victory, which was a result of the work of former President Benigno Aquino III.
“There is a misperception among us that the president really set aside the ruling. That’s not true. He said, 'in the meantime, huwag lang natin pag-usapan (let’s not talk about it). Let’s just manage the conflict with the Chinese',” he said.
Lorenzana said Chinese reclamation in Scarborough Shoal might prompt Duterte to change his stance.
“The president has also stated a red line. He said, once the Chinese starts exploring, putting rigs there, we’ll talk to them,” he said.
China has already built artificial islands in the Spratlys, and analysts say a reclamation in Scarborough would boost Beijing’s control of over that area.