Philippines Protests Island Landings, Offers Bases to U.S.

Exercise
File photo courtesy U.S. Navy

By Reuters 2016-01-13 12:31:00

The Philippines has filed a protest against China's test flights on an artificial island in the South China Sea, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday, describing the actions as "provocative" and a violation of an existing informal code.

Last week, Beijing landed three flights on Fiery Cross in the disputed Spratly archipelago, angering Vietnam and drawing criticism from the United States, which expresssed deep concern it will exacerbate tension in the region.

"We formally protested on Jan. 8 the recent test flights by China to Kagitingan Reef," Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters, using the local name for Fiery Cross Reef, saying the foreign ministry summoned China's embassy official to hand over the protest.

Jose said the test flights were "provocative actions" that will restrict the freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea.

Every year more than $5 trillion of world trade is shipped through the South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, which China claims almost entirely. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.

"These actions by China have elevated tensions and anxiety in the region and are in violation of the spirit and letter of the Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea," he added.

Since 2010, China and the 10-member Southeast Asian countries have been negotiating a legally binding code of conduct to replace the informal rules contained in a political declaration made in Phnom Penh in 2002.

In related news, the Philippines has offered the United States eight bases where it can build facilities to store equipment and supplies under a new security deal, a military spokesman said on Wednesday, amid rising tension with China over the South China Sea.

Last year, the Philippines and the United States signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) granting Washington increased military presence in its former colony, rotating ships and planes for humanitarian and maritime security operations.

"The list has been prepared many months ago when we had earlier discussions," Colonel Restituto Padilla told reporters, saying five military airfields, two naval bases and a jungle training camp were offered to the United States.

"These are still subject for approval and we're going to hold final discussions about these areas."

Three of these bases are on the main island of Luzon in the northern Philippines, including Clark airfield, a former U.S. air force base, and two are on the western island of Palawan, near the South China Sea.

The Americans are also seeking access to three civilian seaports and airfields on Luzon, including Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base, a senior defense official told Reuters.

Last year, more than 100 U.S. Navy ships docked in Subic and two advanced nuclear-powered stealth submarines made visits in the first two weeks of this year.

"Subic is important to the Americans because it is one of the few areas in the country where they can actually dock safely," said a defense official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

In Washington, Philippines Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said security cooperation with the U.S. had become more intertwined amid increasing tension over the South China Sea.

Every year more than $5 trillion of world trade is shipped through the South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, which China claims almost entirely. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.

China's official Xinhua news agency, in an English-language commentary, said the EDCA would only escalate tension and "could push the situation to the brink of war".

"The deal is groundless because China, which sticks to a defensive defense policy, has never coerced any country on the South China Sea issue," it said.