MANILA, Philippines – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has released on April 20 several satellite images of the seemingly rapid progress of China’s massive reclamation works in disputed territories.
The release of the photographs came on the same day of the launching of the joint US-Philippine military exercises near the area dubbed as Balikatan 2015 where 15,000 troops from the two countries are expected to participate.
It also came after an announcement that President Benigno Aquino III will call on ASEAN members to issue a collective statement denouncing China’s aggressive moves through its reclamation activities in the disputed West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.
The aerial photographs were supposedly taken several weeks ago and showed the extent of construction works with which the China has accomplished in a short time since late last year. It was shown to the media by AFP Chief-of-Staff Brigadier General Pio Catapang.
The photographs showed significant progress of construction and reclamation works over seven reefs and shoals in the Spratly’s group of islands, long considered as a flashpoint in the region where several nations have overlapping claims including the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
These include structures taking shape in Gaven Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Kennan Reef, Mischief Reef and Johnson Reef. It likewise showed a flotilla of Chinese vessels conducting dredging activities in these areas, creating man-made islands from the previously submerged land mass.
The world must know of China’s aggressiveness
General Catapang told reporters the satellite images are enough reasons to raise concerns and tell the whole world of China’s apparent disregard of the UNCLOS and the 2002 informal agreement Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
“We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China’s aggressiveness,” he told reporters. “Assertive behaviour from China in this region is not a new thing. Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels have been harassing fishermen and US vessels for years.”
The military chief said China’s construction activities raises concern not only because it could deter freedom of navigation, but also due to its military purpose.
“The concern is that they give the Chinese military the ability to project force and sovereignty much better into the South China Sea,” Catapang added. “They could be used as launch pads for law enforcement vessels and harassing operations of other countries in the region.”
Catapang said while it does not pose any threat at present condition, it, however, reflects China’s long-term intention.
Collective ASEAN statement vs. reclamation
President Aquino is expected to call on the 10-nation group ASEAN during its summit on Friday, April 24 in Malaysia, a foreign affairs official said.
“The president will raise definitely the reclamation issue,” Foreign Affairs official Luis Cruz l told reporters. “We would aim for a collective statement, this time on the issue of the reclamation of some features in the South China Sea.”
Aquino will attend the 26th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit this week to be hosted by Malaysian President Najib Razak.
China to oppose ASEAN unified voice
China said it will oppose the unified statement from members of ASEAN denouncing the former’s reclamation and construction works in South China Sea.
During the scheduled press conference by Beijing’s Foreign Ministry, agency spokesperson Hong Lei underscored the South China Sea conflict, saying it is not an issue between China and ASEAN.
“The Chinese side is always against the attempt of few countries to damage the friendly relationship of cooperation between China and ASEAN by making use of the South China Sea issue. We are committed to working with ASEAN countries to fully implement the “dual-track approach” in handling and addressing the South China Sea issue and jointly uphold peace and stability of the South China Sea,” the Chinese official said.
However, Hong, refused to make any specific comments regarding the on-going joint US-Philippine military exercises just 200 miles east of the disputed areas.
“We have noted the relevant report and hope that relevant countries will do more to enhance security mutual trust among countries in the region and promote regional peace and stability,” he only said when asked to make a statement on the event.