Manila, (AFP/APP):Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered troops to scrap plans of building a fishermen’s shelter on a sandbar in the disputed South China Sea after Beijing complained, his defence chief said Wednesday.
The military in August brought bamboo and palm roofing materials to one of three sandbars that emerged near one of their garrisons in the Spratlys archipelago in the contested sea, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. “We tried to put some structures (on) one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted,” Lorenzana told a regional security forum. “And so the president came to know about this and he said: ‘Let’s pull out’.” The apparent reversal comes at a time of improving relations between China and the Philippines, which until recently had bitterly contested their overlapping claims to the sea. Lorenzana later told reporters that Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano advised Duterte there was an agreement between the two nations not to put up structures on new South China Sea features.
“We did not occupy it but some of our fishermen would like to establish a shelter there. They (China) saw it and they complained, so we had to pull out,” Lorenzana said. China claims most of the strategically vital sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes, and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. It has been turning reefs in the sea into islands, installing military aircraft and missile systems on them. China’s sweeping claims overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan. The Philippines had for many years been one of the region’s strongest opponents to Chinese expansionism.
A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled last year that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis. But the Philippines, under Duterte, decided not to use the verdict to pressure China, instead electing to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid. Lorenzana said the sandbar the military had planned to build the shelter on was a 500-square-metre (5,382-square-foot) outcrop located 4.6 kilometres (2.9 miles) from Philippine-held Thitu island. Thitu is located about 26 kilometres (16 miles) from one of the artificial Chinese islands. Lorenzana said the sandbars were now empty and that Manila was not worried China would occupy them in turn.
Nevertheless, he said he was concerned over the potential for future confrontation as Chinese fishing fleets escorted by maritime patrol vessels showed up in waters considered a traditional Filipino fishing ground. “We have troops there, we have ships. Their troops could confront ours. That’s the kind of encounter I’m talking about. Now if there’s a mis-encounter, misunderstanding or miscalculation it could result into violence,” Lorenzana said.