Amid China's sea buildup, Palace says Duterte ‘non-combative’

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 30 2017 01:14 PM

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte is maintaining his “non-combative” stance in dealing with China amid a report that Beijing has built new military facilities on artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, Malacañang said Friday.

“We need to reiterate the fact that the president has said his approach to the situation… is always to come into mutual understanding and dialogue in order to resolve cases like this,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a news conference.

“We need to just go back to the fact that the president at this stage has been non-combative and non-adversarial,” he said.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported on Thursday that new satellite images show missile shelters and radar and communications facilities being built on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratlys.

The Philippines has been laying claim to these features as they are located within the country's exclusive economic zone, a part of the waters it calls the West Philippine Sea. 

Despite the report, Abella said Duterte shall maintain his position to resolve the issue through peaceful dialogue.

The report came just as ties between the Philippines and China warmed up, with recent announcements of Beijing's P15-million aid for relief and rehabilitation efforts in conflict-stricken Marawi City, and a separate P5 million for Philippine troops slain and wounded in the gunfights. 

Duterte’s friendly overtures to China, part of a foreign policy pivot away from traditional allies such as the United States, have translated to billions of dollars worth of investment pledges. 

Also this week, Beijing turned over P370 million worth of arms to Manila to fight terrorism, promising to give even more. 

Meanwhile, China has ignored the Philippines' arbitral victory that invalidated Beijing's nine-dash line claim over nearly all of the South China Sea. 

It has instead ramped up militarization and island-building activities in the contested waters. This has drawn criticism from the United States, concerned that the facilities could be used to restrict free movement through the South China Sea, an important trade route.

China has denied US charges that it was militarizing the sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has built four new missile shelters on Fiery Cross Reef to go with the eight already on the artificial island, AMTI said. Mischief and Subi each have eight shelters, the think tank said in a previous report.

On Mischief Reef, a very large antennae array is being installed presumably to boost Beijing's ability to monitor the surroundings, the think tank said, adding that the installation should be of concern to the Philippines due to its proximity to an area claimed by Manila.

A large dome was recently installed on Fiery Cross and another is under construction, indicating a sizeable communications or radar system, AMTI said. Two more domes are being built on Mischief Reef, it said.

For long thorny due to the sea dispute, ties between the Philippines and China have improved since Duterte took power, as he chose to downplay the sea row in pursuit of improved economic relations with Asia's largest economy.