‘Grave concern’: Philippines suspects China of attempted reclamation of Scarborough Shoal

Landsat 7 image of Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea © wikipedia.org
The Philippines is “gravely concerned” that China might be planning to build an artificial island on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, as Beijing has decided to disregard the recent international court decision that barred China from the area.

The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12 said that no one country had sovereign rights over activity in the Scarborough Shoal, after The Hague court ruled against China in the maritime dispute.

China refused to recognize the ruling, and over the last few days has been increasing its presence over the shoal, which is just a few rocks poking out above the waves.

“The presence of so many ships, other than coast guard in the area is cause for grave concern,” Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Sunday after his country’s air force plane allegedly detected four Chinese coast guard ships, two barge-like vessels and two suspected troop ships near the shoal Saturday.

The minister noted that earlier this year the Chinese tried to bring in dredging barges to turn Scarborough into an artificial island. That attempt, Lorenzana said, was dissuaded by the United States.

“If they try to construct anything in Scarborough it will have far reaching adverse effect on the security situation,” he added, pointing out that Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador for an explanation.

Washington has publicly warned China against reclaiming waters around Scarborough Shoal, located 120 nautical miles from the Philippines and some 250 nautical miles northeast of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the disputed Spratlys archipelago. China took control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine navy.

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In April, the US flew three different air patrols near the shoal after Washington warned China of crossing a “red line” with President Barack Obama threatening with “serious consequences” in March if China attempted to reclaim the land.

While the Chinese Embassy in Manila was not reached by Reuters or AFP for a comment over the summoning of its ambassador, following July’s Hague decision, Beijing has made clear that the South China Sea, which is home to forty percent of the world’s shipborne trade, will be pursued by China.

“We will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway...no matter what country or person applies pressure,” Adm. Wu told US Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson during a meeting in Beijing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in July. 

On Friday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said he intends to ask Beijing directly if it is building up the shoal in violation of international law.

“The coast guard made some little trips near them and there are a lot of barges... What is the purpose of a barge?” Duterte said, adding that the intelligence report “was unsettling.”

“They suspect that’s going to be another construction somewhere,” the president said. “It could be a potential flashpoint, this China Sea.”

Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have been involved in disputes over ownership of territory in the South China Sea over natural resources.