Philippine officials blasted China for its reclamation efforts in the disputed South China Sea as the United States and the Philippines ended their two-day strategic dialogue in Manila, media sources reported January 21.
In a joint press conference with America’s top diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, on Wednesday, Philippine foreign affairs undersecretary Evan Garcia said that China’s activities violated the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) that it signed with the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and were hampering efforts to resolve competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“[T]he massive reclamation of China in the South China Sea is a clear violation of what we have agreed upon,” Garcia said. “It is not helpful in terms of finding a way forward and it is not an example of what anybody would understand as self-restraint.”
Under the agreement, all parties agreed to exercise self-restraint, refrain from actions that would complicate or escalate disputes, and handle their differences in a constructive manner.
While he declined to elaborate on specifics, Garcia said that available imagery clearly demonstrated a deliberate effort by China to alter the status quo in its favor.
“It is massive, just look at the photographs. These are not small adjustments. These are huge activities that are obviously designed to change the status quo,” Garcia said according to Reuters.
As The Diplomat reported on January 10, there has been growing scrutiny on China’s reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. The chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Gregorio Catapang Jr., revealed that China was about halfway done with its land reclamation efforts on Fiery Cross Reef, and other defense sources have said that Beijing could finish constructing a second airstrip in the South China Sea there by the end of 2015.
On Wednesday, Philippine defense undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino characterized those reclamation activities as a “very serious” concern and “growing” in remarks to reporters, according to Agence France-Presse.
Some have argued that this is part of a broader Chinese strategy of “incremental assertiveness,” with calibrated actions ranging from land reclamation activities to seizing actual features designed to change the facts on the water in Beijing’s favor over time.
U.S. officials also expressed concern about Beijing’s behavior. Russel said that Washington has “laid out a persuasive case for restraint” in the South China Sea and viewed the territorial disputes as an “ongoing concern.” He added that while the United States has an interest in a constructive relationship with China, it was concerned about destabilizing behavior.
“Behavior that that raises tensions, behavior that raises questions about China’s intention and behavior that would appear to be inconsistent with the principles that I have enumerated, work counter to those goals,” Russel said.
In the face of Beijing’s actions, Batino told reporters in a news conference following the bilateral dialogue that the Philippines had little choice but to increase its capabilities, which would come with time as the country is in the midst of modernizing its military, partly with American assistance. He also said the two allies would focus more on joint exercises, including in the maritime domain.
“We [will] prioritize high value exercises that would focus on maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” he said.