Philippines Warns China May Be Building an Airstrip on Disputed Reef

Philippines Warns China May Be Building an Airstrip on Disputed Reef

The Philippines lodged a formal complaint with China Wednesday accusing it of moving building materials onto a disputed strip of the South Johnson Reef, a move perceived as yet another act of belligerence by China in heavily disputed territory.

The South Johnson Reef lies near the Spratly Islands, a group of islands in the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines that China claims. According to Reuters, Philippine Foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose said that aerial imagery was showing that China had been moving building materials to the reef in recent weeks, violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

In a statement, the Filipino government announced that the Chinese had already dismissed the formal complaint they lodged Wednesday as invalid. The Wall Street Journal quotes a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson as explicitly claiming the reef for China and rejecting the idea that there is anything scandalous about construction on it. “Construction by the Chinese side on an island in Chinese territory is entirely a matter that comes under Chinese sovereignty,” Hua Chunying said.

The formal complaint is the latest in a string of actions that have exacerbated tensions between China and the Philippines. While President Obama was in the archipelago nation in April, the Philippines signed a ten-year pact with the United States to allow the American military greater access to Filipino territory in exchange for protection. China reacted with concern, but the Philippines alarmed the nation further with the subsequent arrest of eleven fishermen alleged to be poaching sea turtles in disputed water.

An opinion column in Xinhua from Wednesday condemns the Filipino government for its “premeditated” actions, particularly attacking the decision to arrest the anglers. Arguing that, regardless of the veracity of the sea turtle claim, “Manila was wrong in the first place because China has indisputable sovereign rights over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters,” the column notes that the incident occurred shortly after President Obama’s visit. It warns the United States to not meddle in the affairs of Asia and condemns Vietnam for its strengthening alliance with the Philippines. 

In addition to its challenges from the Philippines, China has recently contended with a number of territorial disputes, particularly one with Japan. Both Japan and China claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are uninhabited but boast natural resources. President Obama has said that the islands are Japanese and treaty obligations extend to protecting them from invaders, which would pit China directly against the United States militarily should China attempt to wrest them from Japan by force.

There is no indication of whether the Philippines will take the South Johnson Reef matter to the international community or United Nations directly now that China has dismissed the claim, or take other such actions to prevent Chinese construction there.