President Duterte has cancelled plans to build a fisherman’s shelter on a South China Sea sandbar after Beijing complained.
In August, the military transported bamboo and palm roofing materials to a sandbar in the Spratlys archipelago, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said today (Wednesday, November 8).
“We tried to put some structures on one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted,” he 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, despite their overlapping claims in the disputed waters.
Mr Lorenzana told reporters that Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano had advised the president that there was an agreement between the two nations not to put up structures on new South China Sea features. The sandbar was one of several to emerge in August, which have been named Sandy Cay.
“We did not occupy it but some of our fishermen would like to establish a shelter there. China saw it and they complained, so we had to pull out,” he added.
China claims nearly all of the strategically crucial waters, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes. It is also believed to contain vast oil and gas deposits.
Beijing has been turning reefs in the sea into islands, installing military aircraft and missile systems on them.
China’s claims also overlap with those of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Under the previous administration, the Philippines was one of the region’s strongest opponents to Chinese expansionism.
A tribunal at the Hague ruled last year that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis.
However, President Duterte decided not to use the verdict to pressure China, instead opting to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid.
Mr Lorenzana said the sandbar the military had planned to build on was a 5,382-square-foot outcrop about three miles from Philippine-held Thitu island.
Thitu, known in Tagalog as Pag-asa and as Zhongye Dao in Chinese, is about 16 miles from one of China’s artificial islands.
Mr Lorenzana said the sandbars were now empty and that Manila was not worried China would now occupy them.
“We have troops there, we have ships. Their troops could confront ours. Now if there’s a mis-encounter, misunderstanding or miscalculation it could result into violence,” he warned.
The ongoing disputes over the South China Sea are expected to be among the issues under the spotlight at a summit of Southeast Asian nations and their Asian and Western counterparts in Manila next week.
Mr Lorenzana welcomed progress by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to negotiate a ‘code of conduct’ to prevent conflict in the strategic waters.