The Philippines yesterday accused China of violating an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea by planning new structures on a disputed shoal, as China’s premier told Southeast Asian leaders that Beijing was serious about peace.
Friction over the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways, has surged as China uses its growing naval might to assert its vast claims over the oil and gas-rich sea more forcefully, raising fears of a military clash.
Four of ASEAN’s 10 members have overlapping claims with China, including the Philippines.
Beijing and Manila accuse each other of violating the Declaration of Conduct (DoC), which is a non-binding confidence-building agreement on maritime conduct signed by China and ASEAN in 2002.
Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told a congressional budget hearing in Manila that China had violated the DoC by getting ready to build new structures on the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島).
“We have ... sighted concrete blocks inside the shoal which are a prelude to construction,” Gazmin said, displaying air surveillance photographs of the rocks.
He said the photos were taken on Saturday last week, describing them as a worrying pattern of construction that would be similar to the building of a garrison on Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) in the late 1990s.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said he had “no information” about Gazmin’s accusations.
Regional security expert Ian Storey said that if Gazmin was correct, it would mark the biggest violation yet of the 2002 declaration.
“If China starts building at Scarborough, then it is an occupation and, I believe, the most egregious violation yet of the 2002 declaration,” said Storey, who is based at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies. “It is a very significant development indeed and one that will certainly add to tensions.”
Speaking at a China-ASEAN trade fair in Nanning, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said his country was serious about wanting a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea disputes, though signaled it was in no rush to sign a long-mooted accord to replace the DoC.
After years of resisting efforts by ASEAN to start talks on an agreement on maritime rules governing behavior in the region, the so-called Code of Conduct, China has said it would host talks between senior officials this month.
Li said China had always advocated talks on the South China Sea on the basis of “respecting historical reality and international law.”
“The Chinese government is willing and ready to assume a policy of seeking an appropriate resolution through friendly consultations,” Li told the audience.
China would “proceed systematically and soundly push forward talks on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea,” Li said without elaborating in comments aired live on state television.