Beijing came under pressure at an Asian summit today over its “illegal” island building in the South China Sea, after the Philippines produced evidence it said showed fresh construction activity at a flashpoint shoal.
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 United States, 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 230 kilometres from the main Philippine island, where US forces are stationed.
But the Philippines today 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 spokesman Arsenio Andolong told AFP.
“We are continuing our surveillance and monitoring of their presence and activities, which are disturbing.”
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which USD 5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
The competing territorial claims have long been a major source of tension in the region, with China using deadly force twice to seize control of islands from Vietnam.
Tensions have escalated sharply in recent years as China has built islands on reefs and islets in the Spratlys archipelago – another strategically important location – that are capable of supporting military operations.
The United States has reacted to that build-up by sailing warships close to the new islands, and sending warplanes over them, deeply angering China.
A UN-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, and has since deployed large fishing fleets while blocking Filipino fishermen.
Expanding that presence with a military outpost is vital to achieving China’s ambitions of controlling the sea, according to security analysts.