Credit: Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs
“China has pursued these activities unilaterally, disregarding people in the surrounding states who have depended on the sea for their livelihood for generations,” the spokesman, Charles Jose, said during a news briefing in Manila.
He said China’s neighbors in the South China Sea could lose up to $100 million a year because of the loss of the coral reefs, which are breeding grounds for high-value fish harvested by countries surrounding the sea.
China has been undertaking land reclamation projects on the sand spits, islets and submerged reefs of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, according to satellite images released in the last year. United States and Philippine officials have said the newly constructed islands could serve as military outposts in the area, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and other governments.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said last week that the construction was focused on building maritime aids for China, its neighbors and international vessels in the South China Sea. The islands will host “typhoon shelters, navigation aids, search-and-rescue centers, marine meteorological forecasting stations, fishing services and civil administration offices,” she said.
United States military officials have used strong language in the past month to protest China’s island-building activities, noting that the construction work is decreasing the chances of a diplomatic resolution to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Last week, the Philippines and the United States announced that their annual joint military exercises would be the largest conducted in 15 years and would include war games in coastal areas facing the South China Sea. The exercises, which are to begin next Monday, include more than 11,000 soldiers and sailors from both countries. That is twice the number of troops involved in last year’s exercises, officials said.
The joint operations will be conducted throughout the country, including on the west coast of Luzon Island and in the western coastal areas of the province of Palawan, both of which face the South China Sea. Some of the military drills will be held at the former United States naval base in San Miguel in the province of Zambales, which is less than 150 miles from Scarborough Shoal, a Chinese-controlled reef that is also claimed by the Philippines.
Philippine military officials said last week that the expansion of the war games was not intended to send a message to China. A Philippine military spokesman, Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, said the activities, called Balikatan, were part of regular annual exercises and would be focused primarily on disaster response.
“The higher strength of Balikatan 2015 for this year only reflects the Philippines’ and the United States’ growing commitment to enhance our capability to conduct joint military and nonmilitary activities,” he said.
The Philippines filed a case in March last year with an international tribunal based in the Netherlands seeking to clarify the conflicting claimsin the South China Sea. The Philippine foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, has said a decision from the tribunal could come by the first quarter of 2016. China has declined to participate in the proceedings, saying the areas in question are sovereign territory not under the jurisdiction of an international tribunal.