Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 19) — Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario is urging the government to protest China’s creation of new districts that cover features in the South China Sea, including the Philippine-claimed Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and Fiery Cross Reef.
Del Rosario said just as the Philippines protested China’s reported sinking of a Vietnames fishing vessel, it should also protest its declaration of the new districts.
He added that these recent incidents involving China in the disputed waters should keep Filipinos vigilant, even as the world faces the coronavirus pandemic, which started in Wuhan, China.
“These show that China has been relentless in exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to pursue its illegal and expansive claims in the South China Sea to the prejudice of Filipinos, the ASEAN states and the international community as a whole,” Del Rosario said.
Chinese State-owned China Global Television Network reported Saturday that China has established two new districts covering Paracel Islands, Zhongsha Islands, which is home to Scarborough Shoal, Woody Island, Spratly Islands, and Fiery Cross Reef.
The report said Xisha district will administer the Paracel and Zhongsha islands and its surrounding waters, while its government will hold office on Woody Island, which is claimed by both China and Vietnam.
The Paracel Islands are both claimed by China and Vietnam. The entirety of Zhongsha Islands is both claimed by China and Taiwan, while Scarborough Shoal is also claimed by the Philippines.
The CGTN report also said that another district, called Nansha, will be governing the Spratly Islands and its surrounding waters. Its government will hold office on Fiery Cross Reef.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims over Spratly Islands. Fiery Cross Reef, meanwhile, is claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Xisha and Nansha districts are both part of Sansha City, which administers the Paracel, Zhongsha and Spratly islands.
CGTN described the city as covering two million square square kilometers, but only covering 20 square kilometers of land. It also said some 1,800 people live in the city.
China has so far put up two research stations, and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While these actions were widely seen as China taking advantage of the global health crisis, “none of these [incidents] are new,” according to Washington-based think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
“There’s nothing different today that China wasn’t doing six months ago,” AMTI director Gregory Poling said in an online forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.
“It has been steadily increasing its presence… it’s been steadily increasing the frequency of harassment of Southeast Asian oil and gas operations, fishing operations, etc.,” Poling said, adding that China is showing no signs of stopping in order to establish control of contested waters.
“I think people are a little more scandalized. They have assumed that amid the global pandemic, we would see a calming and that hasn’t happened,” he added.
President Rodrigo Duterte has nurtured ties with China despite its continued aggression in the West Philippine Sea — areas Manila claims and occupies in the South China Sea.
A 2016 ruling by a Hague-based arbitral tribunal backed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration voided China’s sweeping claims over virtually the entire South China Sea based on so-called historical rights, but Beijing continues to reject this decision.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has convinced Duterte to “shelve differences” to make way for joint oil and gas exploration.