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China likely to build on reef near Philippines: minister
By Ayee Macaraig
Manila (AFP) Feb 7, 2017

Five facts on Asia's disputed Scarborough Shoal
Manila (AFP) Feb 7, 2017 - - What is it? -

Scarborough Shoal is a small ring of reefs that lies about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippines and 650 kilometres from the nearest major Chinese land mass, the southern island province of Hainan.

It is rich with marine life that fishermen from the Philippines, China and Vietnam have tapped for generations.

Although it is in the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone, China and Taiwan also claim it falls within their sovereign territory, part of a broader row over territorial rights in the South China Sea.

- Why is it important? -

Beijing has moved aggressively in recent years to cement its claims to most of the South China Sea, assert military control over the waters and thus weaken US influence.

China has built islands and airstrips on reefs and islets in the Spratlys archipelago, a strategic location in the southern part of the sea.

A US-based think tank released photos in December showing Beijing appeared to have installed weapons systems at its outposts in the area.

Because of its position, another military outpost at Scarborough Shoal is seen as the last major physical step required to secure control of the sea.

An outpost at the shoal would also put Chinese fighter jets and missiles within easy striking distance of US forces stationed in the Philippines.

The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries' navies from using the vital stretch of waters.

- What has happened there in the past? -

The shoal became part of US territory when the Philippines was made an American colony through the Treaty of Paris in 1898. It was transferred to the Philippines upon independence in 1946.

The Philippine navy then used it as a gunnery range for joint exercises with US forces, who had permanent bases nearby on Luzon island until 1991.

China took effective control of the shoal after an April 2012 stand-off with the Philippine Navy, and blocked Filipino fishermen from entering the shoal.

A UN-backed tribunal ruled last year that China's claims to the South China Sea had no legal basis. It also ruled that blocking Filipino fishermen at the shoal was illegal.

However after new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing in October, Filipinos were allowed to fish again around the shoal.

Duterte then took a "unilateral" decision to make the lagoon at Scarborough a protected marine sanctuary, drawing criticism from local fishermen who feared another blockade.

- What happens next? -

China vowed to ignore the tribunal's ruling and press on with artificial island building. Yet it denied doing any construction work at the shoal.

Then-US President Barack Obama reportedly warned Chinese President Xi Jinping last year against building an island at the shoal, establishing a so-called "red line".

At his confirmation hearing the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington should block Beijing's access to its artificial islands.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday told AFP that China was "trying to get Scarborough" as part of a strategy to counter US influence in the region.

- Risk of military confrontation? -

China has proved it is willing to use deadly force to back its claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing gained control of the Paracel Islands in 1974 following clashes with the South Vietnamese Navy that left about 50 Vietnamese troops dead.

Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988 that killed about 70 Vietnamese military personnel.

Manila expects China to try to build on a reef off the coast of the Philippines, the country's defence secretary said Tuesday, adding this would be "unacceptable" in the flashpoint waterway.

In an interview with AFP, Delfin Lorenzana said he believed China would eventually reclaim Scarborough Shoal, just 230 kilometres (143 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon.

Beijing has already built up a number of islets and reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, installing military facilities on several of them.

Analysts say similar installations on nearby Scarborough Shoal could give China effective military control over the disputed Sea -- something the US has said it is not prepared to accept.

"They encroached," Lorenzana said of a 2012 confrontation that saw Philippine vessels displaced from the shoal. "They occupied three islands there (in the Spratlys) plus they are trying to get Scarborough. So to us that is unacceptable".

"If we allow them, they will build. That's very, very disturbing. Very much (more) disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close to us," Lorenzana added, referring to one of the Philippine-claimed reefs China has built on.

Because of its position, another military outpost at Scarborough Shoal is seen as the last major physical step required to secure control of the sea.

An outpost there would also put Chinese fighter jets and missiles within easy striking distance of US forces stationed in the Philippines.

The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries' navies from using the waterway.

A UN-backed tribunal -- in a case brought by Manila under then-president Benigno Aquino -- ruled last year that the so-called "nine-dash-line" which underpins Beijing's claim to most of the South China Sea had no legal basis.

But his successor Rodrigo Duterte has courted China and backed away from his country's close relationship with the United States.

Lorenzana said the Chinese island reclamation was intended to secure control of the South China Sea.

"That could be their strategy to counter any superpower that would encroach on South China Sea because they believe South China Sea is -- that's like their lake to them -- theirs," he added.

- 'Red line' -

The administration of new US President Donald Trump has indicated it will push back against any Chinese attempt to bolster control of the sea.

During confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US would block Chinese access to reclaimed islands, although analysts have pointed out that this would require a military blockade -- an act of war.

Lorenzana called Tillerson's remark "very troubling", adding the Philippines would become the battleground if conflict broke out between the two superpowers.

He added that China tried to build on Scarborough last year but American warnings stopped them.

"The Americans, that's their red line. Red line meaning you can't do that there, so they (China) did not do it."

"If we had a strong military presence (in the South China Sea), we can stop them (China) but we don't. I am still hoping in the future some reasonable guy there in Beijing will come to see the light that this is ours."

"That is shooting for the moon but who knows?" Lorenzana added.

He said the Philippines would soon repair a runway on Thitu island, one of its garrisoned features in the Spratlys which he planned to visit, and put up "additional barracks for the marines there".

The defence chief said Manila would try to "manage" the maritime dispute while working with Beijing in other areas like patrolling piracy-plagued southern Philippine waters.

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