Beijing’s “illegal” island building in the South China Sea moved centre stage at an Asian summit yesterday after the Philippines produced evidence it said showed fresh construction activity at a flashpoint.
An artificial island at Scarborough Shoal could be a game changer in China’s quest to control the sea and raises the risk of armed confrontation with the US, according to security analysts. Beijing this week insisted it had not started building at the shoal – a move that could lead to a military outpost just 230km from the main Philippine island, where US forces are stationed.
But the Philippines yesterday released images it said showed Chinese ships in the area that were capable of dredging sand and other activities required to build an artificial island. “We have reason to believe that their presence is a precursor to building activities on the shoal,” defence department spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said.
China claims nearly all of the sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
China has used deadly force twice to seize control of islands from Vietnam. In recent years, China built islands on reefs and islets in the Spratlys archipelago capable of supporting military operations. The US reacted by sailing warships close to the new islands and sending warplanes over them.
A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled in July that China’s claims to most of the sea had no legal basis and its construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters was illegal. But Beijing vowed to ignore the ruling. China took control of Scarborough shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy.
Expanding that presence with a military outpost is vital to achieving China’s ambitions of controlling the sea, security analysts said.
US President Barack Obama reportedly warned his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in March not to build artificial islands there. An Obama aide yesterday downplayed the significance of the photos, saying the US had not detected unusual activity at Scarborough Shoal.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said he did not want to anger China by highlighting the row at the summit. But the release of the photos came just before Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders met Xi.