China and the Philippines are to negotiate a military protocol to avoid maritime “miscalculations,” Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday, following a brief standoff near a Philippine-occupied island in a disputed part of the South China Sea.
Lorenzana said the Philippines in August tried to put up makeshift structures on a sand bar about 4km off Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島) in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), but China objected and sent ships to the area.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sought to defuse tensions by ordering troops to pull out. Construction was stopped.
“We intend to sit down with China to draft and agree on a protocol to resolve immediately any incident,” he said, adding that he hopes talks could start this year.
“We hope to avoid any miscalculations in the disputed areas so we need the protocol to act on any problems, because we cannot wait for higher authorities to decide,” he said. “Anything can happen anytime, so we want commanders on the ground to decide to prevent violence.”
Lorenzana said Philippine marines were sent to a sand bar to build shelter structures made of light materials for Philippine families and fishermen. There were also Chinese fishermen on the 500m2 sand bar, he said.
“China complained because the Philippines was occupying new features, which it said was a violation of a bilateral agreement,” Lorenzana said. “We pulled out and no structures were built there, but both sides agreed there would be no new occupation.”
The Philippines has pressed ahead with US$25 million of upgrades to Thitu Island.
A small community of Filipinos has lived there since the 1970s, ostensibly to prop up the nation’s claim, although conditions are basic compared to those enjoyed by Vietnamese and Chinese on other islands in the Spratly chain.
The Philippines has defended the upgrades, saying other nations have long been doing the same.
China has rapidly built small cities on nearby artificial islands and installed missile systems, radars and aircraft hangars on three of them.
Xinhua news agency said coastguard officials of both countries had met on Tuesday to discuss exchanging visits and cooperating to prevent cross-border crimes.
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