MANILA (AFP) – The Philippines on Saturday said it was investigating signs that China was reclaiming land on disputed South China Sea reefs but stressed it would not be provoked into a rash response.
President Benigno Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte said the government was looking into reports that the Chinese were damaging the reefs in an alleged effort to turn two remote outcrops in the sea into islands.
But she added that Manila would continue to pursue a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
“We do not respond to provocative action, especially (through) military action… we always exhaust the diplomatic channels, as well as other legal means that can help us address this particular issue.”
She also reiterated Aquino’s earlier remarks that Chinese ships had been spotted in the South China Sea, possibly carrying land reclamation equipment.
The two reefs are within the Spratly Islands region, a disputed archipelago of reefs, islands and atolls in the South China Sea that is coveted by the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Photographs allegedly taken by the Philippine military showing Chinese ships engaged in land reclamation off a reef, were published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a major Manila daily on Saturday.
However an armed forces spokesman could not confirm if the photos were genuine.
Last month, the Philippines publicly accused Beijing of large-scale reclamation activity at another location within the Spratlys, the Chinese-held Johnson South Reef.
Manila, which also claims the reef, said the reclamation work could lead to China building its first airstrip in the disputed region.
Johnson South Reef lies about 300 kilometers from the large Philippine island of Palawan and is considerably further away from the Chinese coastline.
The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China’s reclamation works on the reef but Beijing rejected it on grounds the reef is part of Chinese territory.
Tensions have risen over China’s claim to most of the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam being the most vocal in recent years in accusing China of using bullying tactics to enforce its claim.