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Philippines scraps sandbar plan after China anger: defence chief
by Staff Writers
Manila (AFP) Nov 8, 2017


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered troops to scrap plans of building a fishermen's shelter on a sandbar in the disputed South China Sea after Beijing complained, his defence chief said Wednesday.

The military in August had brought bamboo and palm roofing materials to the sandbar near one of their garrisons in the Spratlys archipelago before the president's intervention, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

"We tried to put some structures (on) one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted," Lorenzana told a regional security forum.

"And so the president came to know about this and he said: 'Let's pull out'."

The apparent reversal comes at a time of improving relations between China and the Philippines, which until recently had bitterly contested their overlapping claims to the sea.

Duterte Wednesday sought to downplay the incident, saying China did not make a "strong" reaction and adding "they allowed us to fish" there.

"Do not do anything that will disturb the equilibrium that is now present there," he said of the decision, speaking to reporters before flying to Vietnam for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit where Chinese leader Xi Jinping was also due to attend.

China claims most of the strategically vital sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes, and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

It has been turning reefs in the sea into islands, installing military aircraft and missile systems on them.

China's sweeping claims overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.

The Philippines had for many years been one of the region's strongest opponents to Chinese expansionism.

A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled last year that China's territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis.

But the Philippines, under Duterte, decided not to use the verdict to pressure China, instead electing to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid.

- 'We had to pull out' -

Lorenzana said the sandbar the military had planned to build the shelter on -- one of three that emerged in the area -- was a 500-square-metre (5,382-square-foot) outcrop located just off Philippine-held Thitu island.

Thitu lies 26 kilometres (16 miles) from one of the artificial Chinese islands.

The sandbars are likely "naturally occurring" and appear or disappear above high tide at certain periods, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea told reporters.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano advised Duterte there was an agreement between the two nations not to put up structures on new South China Sea features, Lorenzana told reporters Wednesday, explaining the president's move.

"We did not occupy it but some of our fishermen would like to establish a shelter there. They (China) saw it and they complained, so we had to pull out," Lorenzana said.

He said the sandbars were now empty and that Manila was not worried China would occupy them in turn.

Nevertheless, he said he was concerned over the potential for future confrontation as Chinese fishing fleets escorted by maritime patrol vessels showed up in waters considered a traditional Filipino fishing ground.

"We have troops there, we have ships. Their troops could confront ours. That's the kind of encounter I'm talking about. Now if there's a mis-encounter, misunderstanding or miscalculation it could result into violence," Lorenzana said.

SUPERPOWERS
Who's great again? Trump faces 'king of China' Xi
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Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have one thing in common - they both want to make their nations great again. But while China's leader is on the rise, the US president arrives in Beijing laden down with heavy baggage. Xi will roll out the red carpet for Trump when his five-nation Asia tour takes him to China on Wednesday, bringing the leaders of the world's top-two economies together for the thi ... read more

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