MANILA - The Philippines strongly urged China to stop reclamation work on a disputed submerged reef within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, the foreign ministry said on Friday.
A Philippine navy commander said on Thursday that China had started dredging around the disputed Mischief Reef, signalling Beijing may be preparing to expand its facilities in the area.
"We strongly urge China to desist from its reclamation activities at Panganiban Reef," the foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to Mischief reef by its Philippine name.
"Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Philippines has exclusive right to authorise construction of artificial islands, installations or other structures in the vicinity of Panganiban Reef."
China claims the entire South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the sea where about $5 trillion of ship-borne trade annually.
Beijing has already undertaken reclamation work on six other reefs it occupies in the Spratlys, expanding land mass five-fold, aerial surveillance photos show. Images seen by Reuters last year appeared to show an airstrip and sea ports.
"China's reclamation activities constitute a flagrant violation of these rights and increase tensions in the region," Charles Jose, a foreign ministry spokesman. He said the activities were a violation of an informal code between China and Southeast Asian states.
China occupied Mischief Reef in 1995, building makeshift huts, which Beijing claimed provided shelter for fishermen during the monsoon season. But, China later built a garrison in the area, deploying frigates and coast guard ships. (Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)