Amid claims and counter-claims, China has rubbished reports that it has undertaken construction activities in four unoccupied land features in the South China Sea.
This denial from Beijing on Wednesday came after Manila raised concerns following a report by Bloomberg News on Tuesday which said that Chinese maritime militias had occupied four new and previously unoccupied reefs in the Spratly Islands at Eldad Reef, Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef and Sandy Cay.
The Spratly Islands, an archipelago believed to be rich in gas and mineral deposits, is the subject of a long-standing territorial dispute. The Spratlys are claimed in whole by China and in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
As it claims the entire South China Sea, Beijing has occupied several land features in the past and is reported to have militarized at least three of several islands, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment along with fighter jets.
The Philippines voiced serious concern over the Bloomberg report which said that China was undertaking construction at four reefs in the Spratlys which unnamed Western officials cited in the Bloomberg report said was an attempt by Beijing to lay new claims in the disputed region.
“We are seriously concerned as such activities contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said, as reported by The Manila Times.
The department added that it has asked relevant Philippine agencies to verify and validate the contents of the Bloomberg report.
In 2016, an arbitral tribunal made a ruling in favor of Manila over China’s vast claims to the South China Sea region. Beijing rejected the tribunal ruling.
However, an unnamed Philippine military source speaking on the condition of anonymity told BenarNews there were no signs of construction in the four territories within the Spratly Islands chain.
“Based on our patrols, we have not noticed (Chinese reclamations),” the source told the outlet, adding that Chinese activity in the area “did not indicate construction.”
Asked for Beijing’s response to concerns raised by the Philippines regarding the Bloomberg report, Mao Ning, Spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed the report as “completely untrue,” on Wednesday.
“Refraining from action on the presently uninhabited islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands is a serious common understanding reached by China and ASEAN countries in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and China always strictly abides by it,” Mao Ning said. China refers to the Spratlys as the Nansha islands.
“The growth of China-Philippines relations currently enjoys sound momentum, and the two sides will continue to properly handle maritime issues through friendly consultations,” she added.
While the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines also described the Bloomberg article as “fake news,” a state-supported Chinese think-tank, the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), questioned the findings.
There are no signs of reclamation on Lankiam Cay, Eldad Reef and Whitsun Reef, the think tank said in a tweet, adding that reclamation activity at Sandy Cay was being done by Vietnam. “The reporter of Bloomberg News should do more homework on SCS issue.”
According to SCSPI, the sandbars and formations at Lankiam Cay, Eldad Reef and Whitsun Reef naturally change every year, whereas Sandy Cay is occupied by Vietnam.
However, international experts quickly pointed out that Vietnam occupies Sand Cay and not Sandy Cay, which is a different feature that is disputed by the Philippines and China.
Meanwhile, according to BenarNews, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), attached to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, offered an assessment similar to SCSPI.
“China has not occupied a new feature since December 1994 and has not built up anything it didn’t already occupy,” AMTI Director Greg Poling reportedly said, adding “commercial imagery cannot corroborate” Bloomberg’s claims.
Meanwhile, another analyst, Taylor Fravel cited by BenarNews pointed out that landforms appear and disappear in the South China Sea.
The latest reports of tensions rising between Manila and Beijing come at a time when Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is scheduled to undertake his first visit to China to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping in early January 2023.
While both leaders had met on the sidelines of this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, this will be Marcos’ first visit to China after assuming the presidency.
With the Philippines as a key ally of Washington in the Indo-Pacific region, Beijing is also attempting to strengthen and expand its relationship with Malina as part of its regional strategic and geopolitical plans.