PH: Spratlys ‘airstrip’ affirms case vs China

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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China rejects the Philippines' protest over the construction of a suspected Chinese airstrip in the disputed West Philippine Sea

BOTH CLAIMANT-COUNTRIES. Filipinos wave Philippine flags as they join Vietnamese nationals in a commemoration of the Vietnam-China border war in 1979, in front of the Chinese consulate in Makati on Feb 17, 2014. Protesters aim to support Manila in an ongoing stand-off with China. File photo by Dennis Sabangan/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – China’s construction of a suspected airstrip in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) proves Manila right in filing a case against Beijing, the Philippines asserted Wednesday, May 14, as China rejected its latest protest.

Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said this after the Department of National Defense (DND), in a separate briefing, confirmed “ongoing reclamation or earthmoving activities” in Mabini (Johnson) Reef, which is found in the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.

Lacierda explained that Mabini is claimed by 3 countries: the Philippines, China, and Vietnam.

“This is one instance where the President’s insistence on a multilateral discussion rather than a bilateral dialogue holds true,” Lacierda said.

He added, “How does one conduct a bilateral dialogue with another country where the claimants are more than two countries?”

By “multilateral,” Lacierda referred to the historic case filed by the Philippines against China, which involves a third party – a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

China rejects this case and insists on bilateral means – basically one-on-one talks with the Philippines. Experts see this as lopsided because China is one of the Philippines’ biggest trading partners and is also a rising superpower. (READ: China’s strategy vs PH: Trial by publicity)

China snubs PH protest

PROTEST REJECTED. President Benigno Aquino III brought up the Mabini Reef issue during the recent ASEAN Summit in Myanmar. China, however, insists the disputed Mabini is theirs. File photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau

Given the Chinese position, which the Philippines described as “rigid,” China rejected the Philippines’ protest over its construction of a suspected airstrip.

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) disclosed this in a statement as it also confirmed reclamation activities in Mabini.

“On April 4, 2014, the Philippines protested (the) Chinese reclamation on Mabini (Johnson) Reef. The Chinese side rejected the protest,” the DFA said.

In an interview with reporters, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said China rejected the Philippines’ protest because the reef is supposedly part of Chinese territory.

Asked if China was building an airstrip on the reef, Del Rosario said: “That’s one possibility.”

In its statement, the DFA said President Benigno Aquino III himself “raised the Mabini Reef issue” at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. The department did not discuss China’s reaction.

In any case, the DFA said the Philippines already included Mabini in its 4,000-page written pleading against China, called a memorial, “to clarify Mabini Reef’s physical character.” (READ: PH strikes back, files pleading vs China)

Earlier on Wednesday, DND spokesman Peter Galvez said “we cannot speculate at this point,” when asked if the construction involves an airstrip.

Galvez is certain, however, that sometime in February, “we observed that the structures are getting bigger,” and that the Philippines “observed this earthmoving activity early this year.”

Mabini and armed conflict

CLAIMANTS, TOO. Vietnamese nationals hold a placard in commemoration of the Vietnam-China border war in 1979, in front of the Chinese consulate in Makati on Feb 17, 2014. Dozens of Filipino and Vietnamese nationals protest China's alleged bullying over the Philippines and Vietnam territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Photo by Dennis Sabangan/EPA

While the Philippines and China fight over Mabini, Vietnam also has a stake in this – which even once resulted in armed conflict.

This happened in 1988, when “3 Vietnamese vessels were sunk and 70 of its soldiers killed” near Mabini, according to a primer published by the University of the Philippines (UP) Asian Center and the UP Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

The primer described this as one of two instances of armed conflict in the South China Sea, “both of them between China and Vietnam.”

Earlier in May, tensions again rose between the two countries after Vietnam accused China of ramming its ships in an encounter near another part of the sea. (READ: Will Vietnam follow PH and file case vs China?)

In a phone call to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State John Kerry described the incident as “provocative.” 

China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, which straddles vital sea lanes and is believed to sit on vast oil and gas reserves, has strained its ties with Southeast Asian countries.

The Philippines said it hopes other claimant countries, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia, “can either join us or they can file another case.” – with reports from Agence France-Presse/

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email