(From AFP)

Beijing will start construction this year on a South China Sea islet within the Philippines’ claimed exclusive economic zone as it seeks to project its power in the disputed waters, Hong Kong media reported Monday.

Chinese surveillance ships are seen off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea
Chinese surveillance ships are seen off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea

China will establish an outpost on Scarborough Shoal, 230 kilometres (143 miles) off the Philippine coast, the South China Morning Post newspaper cited an unnamed source close to the People’s Liberation Army as saying.

Beijing claims nearly all the strategically vital sea, despite competing claims from several Southeast Asian neighbors, and in recent months it has developed contested reefs into artificial islands, some topped with airstrips.

Manila claims Scarborough Shoal but says China took effective control of it in 2012, stationing patrol vessels in the area and shooing away Filipino fishermen, after a two-month stand-off with the Philippine Navy.

The SCMP cited the source as saying construction at the outpost would allow Beijing to “further perfect” its air coverage across the South China Sea, suggesting it plans to build an airstrip.

At a regular press briefing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was not aware of the report but the area was China’s “inherent territory”.

Beijing will “adopt the necessary measures to resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests”, she said.

The report comes ahead of an international tribunal ruling, expected within months, on a case brought by the Philippines over the South China Sea.

It also follows an announcement by the US and the Philippines that they would launch joint naval patrols in the sea.

The construction plans were likely to be accelerated in light of the upcoming ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the newspaper cited the source as saying.

“China should regain the initiative to do so because Washington is trying to contain Beijing by establishing a permanent military presence in the region,” the source said.

Washington has sailed ships close to islands claimed by Beijing, accusing China of militarizing the South China Sea and deploying missiles in the area.

Hua said the recent patrol flights in the area by the Philippines and the US were “deserving of suspicion”, urging “some countries” active in the region to exercise restraint and “make cooperative efforts with China”.

Beijing admits building military-capable airstrips and deploying unspecified weapons on some of the islands, but insists US patrols have ramped up tensions.

China’s expansion ‘worrisome’

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, speaking ahead of a visit to Beijing, said on Monday China was making the world “worried” with its military build-up and maritime expansion in the East and South China Seas, Reuters reports.

Ties between China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, have long been plagued by a territorial dispute, regional rivalry and the legacy of Japan’s World War Two aggression.

China and Japan dispute sovereignty over a group of uninhabited East China Sea islets, while in the South China Sea, Beijing is building islands on reefs to bolster its claims.

“Candidly speaking, a rapid and opaque increase in (China’s) military spending and unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas under the aim of building a strong maritime state are having not only people in Japan, but countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the international community worried greatly,” Kishida said in a speech to business leaders.

Kishida plans to visit China as early as Japan’s “Golden Week” extended holiday, which starts on Friday.

“Through candid dialogue with the Chinese side, I want to get the wheel turning to create the Sino-Japanese relations that are suitable for a new age,” he said.

‘Consensus’ over sea row

China’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that Beijing has agreed with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos that the South China Sea territorial dispute should not affect relations between China and the Association of South East Asian National (ASEAN), Reuters reports.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to reporters in the Lao capital, Vientiane, on Saturday and was quoted by his ministry as saying China had reached “an important consensus” with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos.

The South China Sea problem was not a China-ASEAN dispute and it “should not affect China-ASEAN relations”, the ministry said in a statement, referring to their agreement.

China’s maritime claims are ASEAN’s most contentious issue, as its members struggle to balance mutual support with their growing economic relations with China.

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