The Philippines has deployed a fresh batch of marines and supplies to a shoal in the disputed South China Sea, where a Chinese warship and surveillance vessels appeared last month and triggered a new standoff in the strategic waters, Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin said yesterday.
The new contingent of Philippine Marines replaced troops at the Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙), where the arrival last month of Chinese ships sparked diplomatic protests from the Philippines.
Gazmin said that the shoal lies within the Philippines’ internationally recognized 200 nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own and last year took control of another shoal in the Philippines’ economic zone, prompting Manila to seek UN arbitration.
The marines at the Second Thomas, locally known as Ayungin Shoal and which is also claimed by Taiwan, have been stationed in a decrepit military hospital ship that ran aground in 1999 on the shallow coral outcrop and has since become an awkward symbol of Philippine sovereignty.
Gazmin said that he had discussed the fresh Philippine deployment with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing (馬克卿) recently. Ma raised concerns that the Philippines was planning to erect concrete structures at the shoal to reinforce its territorial claim, but Gazmin said he had assured her there was no such plan.
Gazmin said that he discussed the issue with Ma to prevent a possible confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces, but stressed that the Philippines was free to undertake any activity in the shoal without notifying China.
“It’s ours,” Gazmin said by telephone.
He said he has discussed the tense situation at the shoal with visiting US security officials, including US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, at a meeting in Manila on Tuesday.
“They’re really concerned and want to be sure that this will be resolved without use of force,” Gazmin said.
The Second Thomas Shoal lies near the Spratlys (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) a chain of resource-rich islands, islets and reefs contested by Taiwan, China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China and the Philippines figured in a months-long standoff over another territory, the Scarborough Shoal, which is known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan, which also lays claim to it, and which lies north of the Spratlys, in April last year.
Philippine ships later backed off from Scarborough, giving China effective control of the shoal.
China published a new map in January that included for the first time more than 130 islands and islets in the vast waters that were not featured in its previous maps, Xinhua news agency reported.