The Philippines is set to make a diplomatic protest to China after accusing it of breaking a promise by militarising Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea.
The US has long criticised China’s build-up of military facilities on its artificial islands and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free movement through the crucial trade route.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s comments follow a recent broadcast on the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) showing Fiery Cross Reef, which appeared to have been transformed into an airbase.
“The Chinese government said some time ago that they were not going to militarise those reclaimed islands,” Lorenzana told reporters yesterday (Monday, December 8). He also said that the protest would be made through the foreign ministry.
“If it is true, and we can prove that they have been putting soldiers and even weapons systems, that will be a violation of what they said,” he added.
For years, China and the Philippines have been at loggerheads over ownership of parts of the strategic waters. Under the previous administration, Manila took the matter to a UN tribunal at the Hague, which found in favour of the Philippines.
However, since his election in 2016, President Duterte has taken a more conciliatory line on the matter, preferring to foster closer economic ties with China. This policy is at odds with a campaign pledge to personally assert Philippine sovereignty by visiting the disputed islets on a jet-ski.
In response to Duterte’s change of heart, China has assured the Philippines it would not occupy any new territory in the waters, under a new “status quo” brokered by Manila last year.
Speaking at a scheduled news briefing, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said reports about China militarising reclaimed islands were nothing new.
“We have always been against the militarisation of the area,” he said. “It is certainly not OK, because it constitutes a further threat to peace and security in area.
“There is still no breach of the good faith obligation for as long as China has not embarked on new reclamation,” he said.
China has consistently denied accusations that it is militarising the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
According to CCTV’s report on December 30, Fiery Cross Reef now has a hospital with more than 50 doctors, high-speed mobile connections and an airport with a runway of 3,160 metres to serve what Beijing calls a “weather station” equipped with radar.