Manila ‘set to restart’ revamp of airport in South China Sea

(From China Daily)

The Philippines looks ready to restart work on upgrading a military airport at Zhongye Island (Pag-Asa Island for Philippines), a territory in the South China Sea that belongs to China, a source said.

Airstrip on Zhongye Island

Air strip at Zhongye Island

The Philippine Air Force has recently used several transport planes to carry substantial amounts of construction materials, such as stones and sand, and various types of gasoline, to the island, according to the source, who did not want to be identified.

The source said this indicates that the Philippines is prepared to restart the upgrade.

China claims the Philippines has been illegally occupying Chinese territory in the South China Sea since the 1970s, including Zhongye Island, where Manila has carried out large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks.

In January 2013, the Philippines unilaterally initiated an arbitration tribunal against China in The Hague. Manila has twice claimed it has halted the airport upgrade, in 2014 and 2015.

“The restart of the military airport upgrading project is clearly different from what Manila has claimed publicly in the past,” the source said.

Beijing always opposes the Philippines’ illegal occupation of Chinese islands, and it has called on Manila to stop such activities.

Don’t turn shoal into island, China told

Jose Cuisia Jr

Jose Cuisia Jr

In the meantime, a Philippine diplomat warned Tuesday that any Chinese move to turn a disputed shoal, where the U.S. Navy recently spotted a suspected Chinese survey ship, into an island will escalate the disputes in the South China Sea and asked Washington to convince Beijing not to take that “very provocative” step, AP reports.

Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia Jr. told a news conference in Manila that a senior U.S. Navy official reported spotting a suspected Chinese survey ship in the Scarborough Shoal a few weeks ago and expressed concern about its presence in the disputed offshore area.

The Philippine military checked but found nothing, possibly because the Chinese ship later left the shoal, he said.

The U.S. Navy’s sighting of the survey ship in Scarborough, a rich fishing area about 230 km west of the Philippines, has reinforced suspicions that Beijing is eyeing the vast atoll as its next target in its island-making spree, Cuisia said.

“That I think will be very provocative if they will build on Scarborough Shoal,” Cuisia said, adding such an action “will further escalate the tensions and conflict.”

The Philippines is incapable of stopping China from constructing an island in the shoal, where Filipino fishermen have been barred by Chinese coast guard ships, Cuisia said. “We hope that the U.S. and other countries … would convince China not to proceed with that,” he said.

Washington does not take sides in the disputes involving China, the Philippines and four other governments but has declared that ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the busy waters is in its national interest.

Cuisia said he was involved in a U.S. State Department-brokered deal for China and the Philippines to withdraw their ships simultaneously from Scarborough to avoid a potential clash during a tense standoff in 2012.

China reneged on that deal by refusing to withdraw its ships after the Philippines did and now claims there was no such deal, he said.

“We were shortchanged,” Cuisia said.

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