China is risking escalating tensions in the South China Sea after satellite imagery suggested it was reclaiming unoccupied parts of the Spratly Islands, a move which would directly contravene a pact of “self-restraint” between six of the IndoPacific nations. China looks to be artificially enlarging the land to the west of the Philippines, where a Chinese vessel with a hydraulic excavator has been seen operating in recent years, causing concern among other claimants to the area. China has denied the claims, branding them “completely groundless” while praising the “friendly” relationship with the Philippines, despite numerous complaints from its counterparts.
According to satellite images from US officials, new land formations have emerged around the contested Spratly Islands, where Chinese excavation activity has been observed.
China has built artificial islands on reefs in the disputed waters over the past few years, as well as constructed military facilities and airstrips.
The implication contained within the satellite images that China is now continuing its unlawful production of artificial islands in the South China Sea is yet to be corroborated or proven.
But this week the Philippines said it was “seriously concerned” by the images and suggested it showed China was foregoing its duty of “self-restraint” in accordance with the joint Declaration of Conduct.
The Philippine foreign ministry said: “We are seriously concerned, as such activities contravene the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea’s undertaking on self-restraint and the 2016 Arbitral Award.” The ministry added that other agencies have been asked to investigate the report.
There are six claimants to the Spratly Islands, including China, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
In 2002, all six nations signed a declaration pledging to avoid actions that could escalate disputes in the South China Sea, including the occupation of uninhabited land.
China already occupies at least seven islands and rock formations in the Spratlys, which they have militarised with runways, ports, and radar systems.
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The latest satellite imagery suggested that fresh reclamations were taking place on Eldad Reef, Whitsun Reef, Sandy Cay, and Lankiam Cay. The latter is eight miles northeast of Philippine-occupied Loaita Island and 33 miles from Chinese-held Subi Reef.
The nearest major landmass is the Philippine island of Palawan, which is around 280 miles east of Lankiam Cay.
Trillions of dollars worth of trade passes through the South China Sea each year and Beijing has claimed almost all of the resource-rich waters. It has ignored a UN-backed tribunal ruling in 2012 that its claim to the region was baseless.
And Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning suggested the latest report was “completely groundless”.
She said: “Not taking action on uninhabited islands and reefs of the South China Sea is a solemn consensus reached by China and ASEAN countries through actions and declarations by each party.
“The development of China-Philippines relations currently has good momentum, and the two sides will continue to appropriately handle maritime issues through friendly consultation.”
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