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China Says Philippines Ramping Up Spratlys Rift

April 01, 1999|ANTHONY KUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — A top Chinese diplomat accused the Philippines on Wednesday of heightening tensions over the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea but said Beijing will not resort to force to resolve the dispute.

"The Philippine side, especially the military and the Congress, are still cooking up this matter" for political gain, said a senior official with China's Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Manila has recently expressed alarm that new Chinese structures, spotted by Philippine reconnaissance flights over the disputed Mischief Reef, could conceal naval garrisons.

The Spratlys straddle busy shipping lanes in the South China Sea and are thought to contain sizable reserves of oil and natural gas. They are contested partly or wholly by Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

At high tide, much of the chain of coral reefs, sandy shoals and atolls is submerged in azure waters. Several hundred military installations, airstrips and oil tanks built by China and other nations with claims to the area are scattered among the islands.

Last week, Philippine President Joseph Estrada suggested that China had pledged not to build any additional structures on Mischief Reef.

But the Foreign Ministry official insisted that whatever China builds on the islands is a matter of sovereignty. He reiterated that China had simply renovated the buildings for the use of its fishermen, and suggested that China might consider letting Philippine fishermen use the shelters as well.

Last week, Beijing and Manila held confidence-building talks and issued a joint statement agreeing to settle the dispute peacefully and expand military exchanges aimed at avoiding naval conflicts.

Nevertheless, the Chinese diplomat warned the Philippines to stop "provocative, hostile and dangerous" low-altitude reconnaissance flights over the islands.

He criticized the Philippines' arrest of 71 Chinese fishermen last year and cited Chinese restraint in not arresting Philippine fishermen. He also noted that China had refrained from enforcing its own law banning unauthorized passage through the Spratlys by foreign military vessels.

On Tuesday, Manila suggested that the two sides bring their dispute before the Germany-based International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. But the Chinese official rejected the tribunal's jurisdiction over the matter.

Competing claims to the Spratlys are expected to be discussed at a meeting of officials from China and the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations at a meeting in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming next week.

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