Beijing has denied reports that it is planning to build an environmental monitoring station on the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
After a tense standoff with Philippine vessels, China seized the shoal in 2012 and denied access to Philippine fishermen, until a deal was reached to allow their return while President Duterte was visiting China last year.
Earlier this month, Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City — a new administrative district covering the disputed waters — said there were plans to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal.
However, today (Wednesday, March 23) Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied these claims.
“China places great importance on the preservation of the South China Sea’s ocean ecology, this is certain,” she said.
“According to the relevant bodies in China, the reports you mention that touch upon building environmental monitoring stations on Scarborough Shoal are mistaken, these things are not true,” she added.
“With regards to Scarborough Shoal, China’s position is consistent and clear. We place great importance on China-Philippines relations.”
Beijing has already reclaimed large areas around several islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago and built airstrips and military facilities on some.
But analysts warn that building on Scarborough Shoal would radically change the situation since it is only 143 miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Outposts on the shoal would put Chinese jet fighters and missiles within easy striking distance of military bases in the Philippines, some of which host US troops.
The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the disputed waters, so a Chinese military outpost there could effectively block access to the strategic shipping lanes.
On Sunday Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in response to the Xiao Jie’s words that Manila could not prevent such construction because Beijing was too powerful.
“We cannot stop China from doing these things,” he said. “What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we will be a destroyed nation.”
Scarborough has no proper land mass and any structure on it would likely have to be built on stilts.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes and could contain vast deposits of oil and gas.
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